Down a winding dirt road outside the mountain town of Chase, B.C., Rudi Schiebel and Laine Keyes are trying to farm fish and cannabis flowers at the same time.
Their company, Habitat Craft Cannabis, recently received a micro-cultivation licence from Health Canada. Using a process called aquaponics, which involves turning waste from fish into nutrients for plants, the pair of 20-somethings claim to have devised a way of producing certified-organic salmon and cannabis that is of higher quality and lower cost than producing either item on its own.
“If you talk to people about aquaponics, a lot of them are very skeptical about whether you can get all the nutrients you need for cannabis out of this system,” Mr. Keyes, a fifth generation farmer who serves as Habitat’s chief cultivator, explained during a recent tour of the facility. “If you were just running the plants in the same water that the fish are in the nutrients would be a lot less. In that kind of system you have to compromise both your fish and your plants because you could never create an ideal environment for either, whereas when you do decoupling you can have colder water with higher pH and control everything that is perfect for a fish and then on the plant side you can control everything that is perfect for a plant.”
The two co-founders met after both had suffered hockey injuries – resulting in medical cannabis prescriptions. They started Habitat under the Marijuana for Medical Purposes Regulations (MMPR) in 2013 and immediately began looking into aquaponics using koi fish.
“But before we had a koi in a tank and taking the water from that and just adding it to the soil in plants it has been a six-year transition to where we are at now [with salmon],” Mr. Keyes explained.
Along the way the pair picked up a total of $5-million in funding. The first $1-million was a family-and-friends round, Mr. Schiebel explained, while the rest came from an investor round in late 2017.
It cost roughly $2-million to renovate the 70-year-old barn on their property and install the necessary infrastructure, said Mr. Schiebel, the CEO, and another $1.5-million is being allocated for expansion.
The facility at current capacity can produce roughly 250 kilograms of dried cannabis a year and 25 fresh fish per week, but once the expansion is complete both figures should be nearly double. On the fish side the number is especially low compared to other inland fish farms, but Mr. Schiebel said the move was intentional.
“This size is calculated to the amount of canopy space that we can grow, so the amount of waste that comes from this fish system is calculated to the nutrient availability that the plants in the space we have will require,” Mr. Schiebel said. “It is a calculation on how much nutrients the plants need, then it is how much feed you need to feed into a system to then get that nutrient base and that is how you determine how many fish you need and you design your system.”
The longer-term plan is to get a processing licence as well, Mr. Schiebel said, but until that happens they have already entered talks with several other licensed producers about a third-party processing arrangement. Constrained by the 200-square-metre limit on growing space imposed on micro-cultivators, Mr. Schiebel also said the company plans to eventually apply for a standard cultivation licence.
“We want to maintain our own brand,” he said, noting they had previously wanted to use the brand name “Seaweed” but it was trademarked by Canopy Growth before Habitat could file its own trademark application. There has been some discussion of using the company’s Instagram account name – Cake and Caviar – as a brand name, Mr. Schiebel said, but nothing has been decided yet.
Their process allows nearly all water inside the closed system to be recycled multiple times. Mr. Schiebel is especially proud of the company’s water treatment room that takes waste water from the fish farm, processes the solids into nutrients for plants and returns clean water back to the fish.
“This would be very difficult to replicate,” he said during an explanation of the treatment process, noting Habitat considers its technology a trade secret rather than patentable intellectual property. “If someone did replicate it, I don’t think I would even be mad,” he said, “I would probably just be impressed.”