Kelly Coulter is a writer, environmentalist and farmers’ advocate, and an adviser to Craft Cannabis Association of BC. She has been involved with cannabis policy for more than 10 years.
As the cannabis industry continues to grow and mature – and, in some cases, falter and fail – there is some hopeful news that could not only save the industry but also helps foster an entirely new and untapped source of revenue.
To be sure, we are in the early days of legalization. That’s no small feat for any country, let alone a country as diverse and immense as Canada. But that same breadth means that we have resources here to access: specifically, in the case of the cannabis industry and its potential growth into the realm of agri-tourism, the rich history and experience of the wine and craft-beer sectors, both here and in the United States.
It’s a relevant consideration now. In recent weeks, both the British Columbia and Ontario governments have stated their intention to allow cannabis farms to do farm-gate sales – that is, allowing licensed cultivators to sell their product where it’s made, in a similar agri-tourism model that has benefited small farms, wineries, craft breweries and their adjoining communities across the country.
Canada has the opportunity to be the Napa Valley of the world when it comes to cannabis tourism, and we have the advantages here to become just that.
When northern California began to market itself as a destination in the early 1970s, it was Robert Mondavi of Mondavi Wines who took the lead, helping to develop the market and attract visitors beginning in the early 1970s. His marketing prowess was bold and his vision was strong, and those assets have clearly paid off for a region that saw an estimated 3.85 million tourists spend US$2.23-billion in 2018.
In Canada, the Vintners’ Quality Assurance designation has helped to bolster our wine sector, especially in British Columbia. The province already has distinguished 10 official geographic indications, such as Vancouver Island, Gulf Islands, the Okanagan Valley and Kootenays, which “help people identify wines in the marketplace, provide assurance as to the origin and quality of the wine, and promote agri-tourism”, according to the provincial government. Such appellations have provided vital economic supports in the Okanagan Valley as well as in Ontario’s Niagara region, and such branding models can easily be replicated to the benefit of cannabis cultivators and connoisseurs alike.
This prosperity has also come with some costs. Indeed, crop monocultures are not healthy agricultural models, since they demand considerable volumes of water, electricity and pesticides, produce waste and vineyard sprawl, and contribute to soil erosion and deforestation. A more sustainable farming model such as regenerative farming would not only help contribute to a healthier environment, but also benefit farmers. Smaller “micro-licensed” cannabis farms that are independently owned and operated are more likely to enrich their local communities in this way than multinational corporations, and encouraging this will require innovative incentives on the part of governments as they frame their farm-gate policies.
This is not to say that larger operations do not help communities. Employment opportunities bring the nascent economic benefits of new industry to their host towns. At a great enough scale, large cannabis operations and their processing facilities can support struggling communities as they consider transitioning from industries such as lumber and auto. Demand for such facilities is likely to grow over time as more producers become licensed and the demand for legal cannabis increases as it has been doing for the past 12 months. According to Statistics Canada, the country’s legal cannabis industry has grown by 147 per cent since it was legalized in October, 2018. The illicit cannabis market’s contribution to Canada’s gross domestic product has fallen by 19 per cent in that same time.
Local tourism and government agencies are paying close attention to evolving cannabis policies, and there have already been proactive discussions across Canada in sleepy small towns and big city centres alike about seizing their economic potential. And agri-tourism around wine and craft-beer lovers have also provided lessons on how to do so responsibly and safely in regard to public health.
This is where we can find our common ground. As farm-gate policy evolves, we have the unique opportunity to find lanes for collaboration between community leaders, restaurants, lodgers, cannabis retailers, creatives, artists, operators of farms both big and small and, last but definitely not least, budding cannabis enthusiasts. As is the case with food and alcohol, consumers want to know the people behind their products, and cannabis is no different. We just have to have the vision to make it happen.
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