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Cannabis companies eye growing plants outdoors

A worker tends to marijuana plants growing outdoors at Bold Growth’s site near Saskatoon.  |  Bold Growth photo

Legal production of marijuana has traditionally taken place in greenhouses, but two firms take their work outside in Saskatchewan

Dressed in T-shirts, blue jeans and ballcaps, the guys at Bold Growth are almost indistinguishable from other young farmers in the province. But they’re growing something new and different.

Andrew Condin, chief executive officer, and Spencer Veikle, chief operating officer, of Bold Growth might view cannabis as just another crop, but the intensive labour required to grow it and the plants’ use after harvest set cannabis apart.

“The plant care throughout its growing cycle is always a ton of hand care. So things like removing the extra leaves to help get better light penetration through the plant and to the flowers and then constantly looking for plants that look sickly, you want to remove that right away and not let that have an opportunity to kind of breed sickness,” says Veikle. “Even the harvest part of it is going to be by hand.”

Two companies, Bold Growth and Canopy Growth, have started growing cannabis outdoors in Saskatchewan this year, but their approaches to the first year of legal outdoor growing varies.

Bold Growth started with a 600-plant test plot to see how the plants would react to the soil. Its plan is to expand to its 15-acre fenced and secured field next year and its slow expansion into its 220 acres pending licensing.

Canopy Growth started this year by planting a quarter section of cannabis but also has plans to expand after it receives the data from the harvest.

“We expect to see differences (between indoor and outdoor cannabis) in key metrics like yield, overall cannabinoid content and duration of grow; things of that nature,” says Andrew MacCorquodale, chief growth officer at Canopy Growth. “But we don’t have all of the data until the season ends here, which will be coming up in September, October.”

Officials at both companies say they are excited about the opportunities. Condin calls it the new frontier in cannabis growth and expects his company to be able to produce products at a lower cost than indoor-grown plants.

However, Bold Growth and Canopy Growth acknowledge that because of uncontrollable environmental factors, the quality of outdoor cannabis won’t be at the same level as that produced at indoor facilities.

Veikle says because plants use carbon dioxide for photosynthesis, increasing the amount of CO2 in the room speeds photosynthesis and grows bigger and better flowers. Then, he says, growers must find the right balance of CO2 levels, along with the proper levels of temperature and light.

“If any one of those variables changes, the other two should change to kind of correlate with that and so once you have those dialed in, you can produce a nice finished flower,” says Veikle. “That’s the challenge with outdoors … you don’t have quite as much control so some of those are up to Mother Nature.”

It is not expected to affect the overall quality of their products, however, because the outdoor plants will be used mostly for extraction of THC and CBD for use in things such as oils and edibles, once they become legal in October.

“The expansion is creating a lower cost way to produce a greater volume and a lot of the outdoor will go into the extraction process,” says Condin. “So really as we move into cannabis 2.0 and the legalization of the edibles, the vapes and other derivative products, the outdoor cannabis will be focused on being extracted and used in those channels.”

At Canopy Growth, MacCorquodale says he expects outdoor growing will be a big part of their business, but it won’t replace their other operations.

“I think it’s complementary and certainly the more outdoor that we can add to the product mix, the more competitive we can be with very certain products and so that’s the goal,” he says.

“Canopy Growth is very interested in expanding its footprint in Saskatchewan and we do believe that this will be a meaningful crop from a general agriculture perspective moving forward, both cannabis and hemp.”

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