A Flamborough production facility has received a licence from Health Canada to sell medical marijuana. Green Relief Inc., a 32,000-sq.-ft. aquaponics facility, received its sales licence, which will allow the company to sell medical cannabis to registered patients across the country, on April 20. Order fulillment will begin May 1. The Freelton-area facility’s co-owner and CEO Warren Bravo said receiving the sales licence is the end of a long road.
“It was inevitable that we would be getting our sales licence,” he said, noting the company received its cultivation licence in February 2015. “There hasn’t been a licensed producer that’s been licensed for cultivation and turned down for a sales licence.” Bravo, who hails from Burlington, said the system is the only one of its kind of North America. “We’ve broken the mold with a new growing technique – aquaponics – there’s been a lot more research and development into growing cannabis effectively in our systems.” The aquaponics process which Green Relief employs uses tanks of tilapia which are grown to a size of 1.5 to 2 pounds. The water from the fish tanks is circulated through the plants in a closedloop hydroponic system and the solid waste from the fish is converted naturally to a nitrate, allowing the plants to grow freely by taking the nutrients they need.
The system also provides natural filtration and uses 90 per cent less water than conventional agricultural methods.“All of my nutrients are available in my water – I don’t play with fertilizer recipes,” Bravo said. “I have nutrient availability for my plants 24/7.”
“It’s just like any lily pad or bulrush – anything you see growing in a freshwater lake,” he continued, noting the plants, fish and microbes in the system develop into a natural ecosystem. “If you’re canoeing through it, fishing, it’s those fish in that water that are making those plants grow. We’re just commercializing a freshwater lake.” In addition, Bravo said, chemicals and pesticides cannot be used in the aquaponics system, as they would harm the fish.
“If that stuff goes in my water, my ish are dead,” he said. “It’s all about the ish – if the ish are happy, the plants are happy. “That means a more natural plant.” He noted other growers have to spend two weeks flushing commercial fertilizer nitrates from plants with fresh water prior to harvest. “I grow to the last day – I don’t have to lush until the last day.”
While Green Relief doesn’t sell the tilapia, they don’t go to waste – 100 per cent of the fish raised by the facility are donated to Second Harvest – a food rescue and delivery program – for distribution to shelters across southwestern Ontario. “Each month our market-sized tilapia are donated to local homeless shelters in the Toronto area,” Bravo said. “We have donated eight tonnes of healthy fish, resulting in more than 20,000 meals served to date.” Bravo said by using the state-of-the-art aquaponics system, the facility grows four rooms of 1,530 plants on an eight-week cycle. They can harvest plants in one of the rooms every two weeks, resulting in a yield of approximately 50 kilograms.
And the company’s approach is sustainable.
“I’m not just growing soil, mixing in fertilizer and having instant results,” he said. “We have a more sustainable approach – looking at a longer view and what we’re doing to the Earth on a long-term basis.” Bravo said other growers have spent, fertilized soil, or hydroponic water, which are environmental hazards – but not Green Relief. “If you’re not using sustainability now as your model, you’re only going to be a dinosaur,” he said. “We put the time and effort into it.” Bravo noted the aquaponics system hasn’t been cheap. The building cost $12.5 million, while he’s spent $3 million on operations and other costs. “I haven’t made a dime from sales because we haven’t been selling,” he said. “May 1, we start selling. “The first time after four years, that we bring revenue in.” Green Relief applied for its original licence in 2013, and spent 2014 touring facilities around North America, asking growers what they would do differently if they could do it again. Construction on the facility began in August 2014, and was completed by March 2015.
In June 2015, the company began growing vegetables – kale, basil, lettuce and tomatoes – until February 2016 when the company got its cultivation licence”. “In November of 2016 we had our licence inspection for sales,” he said. Bravo noted both he and coowner Steve LeBlanc have backgrounds in the construction industry – Bravo in concrete construction and LeBlanc in concrete restoration. “We designed this building as a concrete, earthsheltered bunker so we could maintain a very stable environment for our plants,” he said. Moving forward, the company has plans to expand – both within the existing facility and beyond. Adjacent to the existing structure, Green Relief plans to erect a 220,000 sq.-ft. building which will include 8,000 sq.-ft. of space for research. Inside the building, the company will install a $700,000 oil extraction machine from Italy, an investment that will give the company the most efficient extraction process in Canada. Bravo said that will allow Green Relief – which has no plans to venture into the recreational marketplace – to better serve its customers, as many medical marijuana patients do not want to smoke. He added the time spent waiting for the sales licence allowed the company to experiment and make sure they had the proper product to give to their patients.
“I’m not going to put out an inferior product,” Bravo said, noting the company grows six strains of cannabis. “I’m absolutely ecstatic that we have our sales licence, but now the real work begins,” he continued.
“Now I have the ability to focus on the science, to get the products out there…to start helping people.”