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Saskatoon hydroponic farm switching from vegetables to cannabis

WATCH ABOVE: Ecobain Naturals used to grow herbs and the company has plans to transition to cannabis in Saskatoon under the name Mother Labs.

The vegetable harvest at a Saskatoon hydroponic farm is complete, clearing room for rows of cannabis plants in the company’s latest budding venture.

For more than five years, Ecobain Naturals produced herbs including basil, dill, mint and chives. The company uses vertical racks of LED lights and a series of environmental controls.

READ MORE: Saskatoon-based Ecobain Gardens improves crops by switching to LED lights

Re-branded as Mother Labs, the company has plans to become a cannabis nursery selling plants to licensed producers and the at-home growing market.

Mother Labs has the capacity, in its existing facility, to produce more than seven million plants per year, according to Mother Labs CEO Brian Bain.

“We are a rapid production farm now, so we produce a lot of plants in a very short amount of time,” Bain said.

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“With the new cannabis switch, it’s going to be the exact same.”

Over the next four months, the company plans to retrofit the facility to meet Health Canada standards. Mother Labs has made an application to the government agency and will be subjected to a video audit, Bain said.

Approval isn’t guaranteed.

“Barrier to entry is important. At the end of the day, everyone would be doing it if it was really simple, if there wasn’t any risk. So for us, the risk is welcome,” Bain said.

Bain said the goal is to be producing plants in seven to eight months. During the construction period, staff are being paid to go on vacation.

“This is a change in the industry that we’re probably never going to see again in our lifetime, so it’s very hard to turn away from this and miss out on the possible opportunity,” Bain said.

READ MORE: Look ma, no soil – Gardening with air, water, fish fertilizer

While other farms converted greenhouses to grow cannabis flowers, Bain said he believes Mother Labs is the first company in Canada to apply as a nursery.

In June 2017, Village Farms in Delta, B.C., entered a joint-venture with Emerald Health Therapeutics and started converting its 1.1 million-square-foot greenhouse from growing and selling tomatoes to cannabis.

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Village Farms CEO Michael DeGiglio said Canada’s legalization and thinner margins for vegetable sales factored into the decision.

“Short-term, for us, it’s very lucrative … 10 times more lucrative than vegetables because people are not executing and there’s a shortage of supply,” DeGiglio said.

One fewer vegetable producer in Saskatchewan isn’t expected to have a significant impact on the province’s food security, according to Saskatoon Food Council executive director Gord Enns.

“On an individual basis, I totally understand and appreciate the opportunity, which is unique,” Enns said.

READ MORE: ‘Only scratched the surface’: Sask. vegetable farmers hope to see industry grow

The larger issue, according to Enns, is Saskatchewan trails provinces like Alberta and Manitoba in terms of how much locally grown produce local people eat.

“If we want to develop that vegetable industry and eat more of what we grow here, we have to put money into programming, research and policy,” Enns said.

While vertical growing may appear futuristic, Enns said Saskatchewan still has plenty of land that could be used for vegetable farming.

As for Brian Bain, he hopes to return to the produce industry in a couple of years with a larger, automated facility.

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