On the south shore of Nova Scotia, inside a former pulp and paper mill, grows some of the greenest green in Canada.
Aqualitas, founded in 2014, was the third company in Nova Scotia to receive a license for cannabis cultivation.
But its proprietary aquaponic system - using koi fish and plants that feed each other instead of fertilizers and pesticides - helps it to stand out among its peers.
The benefits of the closed-loop system, developed under its R&D arm Finleaf Technologies along with teams from Dalhousie and Acadia universities, are numerous. First of all, it’s energy efficient: Aqualitas uses LED lighting and geothermal as part of its heating and cooling practices. Secondly, there is virtually no water loss since the system relies on recirculation - even condensation is captured and re-used. Most importantly, because the plants are receiving nutrients around the clock, growth rates are accelerated and yields are higher.
“One of our plants in 11 to 14 days in the system would look like a plant that was in organic soil for about a month and in hydroponics for at last three weeks,” says Myrna Gillis, co-founder and CEO of Aqualitas. In their prototype and beta systems, Aqualitas was getting yields up to three or four times that of other growing techniques. “We found we were getting up to 360 grams per plant and a similar proxy that was grown in organic living soil was coming in closer to 60 and 80 grams per plant and hydroponics were coming in the low 100’s,” Ms. Gillis says.
So why aren’t more producers going the aquaponic route?
Aqualitas’ investment in research and development has been significant. It took the company three years to figure out how to achieve nutrient consistency for its flowering plants, and it has invested more than $2-million into research.
“People want the certainty of hydroponic nutrient delivery and that was hard to guarantee in an aquaponic system without some R&D and considerable work,” Ms. Gillis says.
Every part of the operation has been studied for efficiency and sustainability. Even the fish.
Aqualitas works with koi fish – the company currently uses around 1,300, and that number is expected to rise as its scales up – for a number of reasons. They are a hearty, robust fish that can handle shifts in temperature and changing acidity in the water. They are also an exceedingly healthy species. Aqualitas projects a 25-year life cycle for their fish, which benefits the biosecurity of the operation.
“We’re not switching out the species every growth cycle and selling the fish,” Ms. Gillis says. “The more mature and consistent the biomass is of your fish, the more balanced your system is.”
Still, not every problem has been solved. As Aqaulitas scales up, Ms. Gillis says a challenge will be the flow rates and making sure nutrient loads are consistent with the recirculation. But the early returns have been positive, and with Aqualitas expecting to receive its sales license in January, Ms. Gillis knows that other companies are going to be watching to see how it performs.
“I think there’s no question we’re going to see more of it [aquaponics] in the future,” Ms. Gillis says. “I see this technology being commercialized not just for cannabis growing, but also for food security. If you’re looking for things that you don’t have to transport and growing technology that allows for year-round production indoors, that you can mitigate against climate change and catastrophic events like fire and hurricanes, or a lack of access to water, I think that aquaponics provides a really good opportunity for food security.”
This is part of the reason that Finleaf was spun out as its own company. By not exclusively tying its technology to cannabis, it becomes easier to commercialize. “We think that this application deserves far broader consideration in agriculture in general,” Ms. Gillis says.
At a local level, Aqualitas is already making a difference. The paper and pulp mill shut down in 2012 and, with its demise, so to went local workers. Now they have reason to return.
“We have about 50 employees right now,” Ms. Gillis says. “Most are local, or they are employees that had gone away to find work and have come back home, so that for us is an amazing feeling – to be rejuvenating that community in that way.”
The goal, eventually, is to build out the entire 88-acre lot and turn it into an incubator for cannabis technology and other emerging cannabis companies. “The cannabis industry as a whole has not the best energy consumption and sustainable practices, historically,” Ms. Gillis says. “For us, a big part of the value proposition that we wanted to bring to the consumer is that they like organically grown products and they also place a high value on environmental sustainability and responsible policies.”
With aquaponics, Aqualitas is reviving traditional Nova Scotian practices and giving them a modern twist. “In Nova Scotia, we were a resource based economy and at our most prosperous those resources were agriculture and fishing,” Ms. Gillis says. “We’ve taken our founding industries here in Nova Scotia and we’ve modernized them.”