Article by Sam Riches, Growth Op
Aqualitas, a licensed cannabis producer on the south shore of Nova Scotia, does things a little differently.
The first cannabis producer in Canada to be Clean Green certified, Aqualitas is one of just a few Canadian producers that grow cannabis using aquaponics. In a closed-loop system, where water and energy demands are drastically reduced, koi fishprovide nutrients to feed the plants, while the plants help clean the water.
The Clean Green certification doesn’t just account for sustainable growing practices, however, it also factors in labour conditions, including employee wages.
While most companies have struggled with the disruption wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic, Aqualitis has avoided any layoffs. In fact, the women-led company has hired 12 people since January of last year.
Located in Brooklyn, N.S., in theRegion of Queens Municipality, Aqualitas has grown from around 50 employees in 2018, when it moved into theformer Bowater Mersey paper mill site, to more than 90 employees in 2020.
According to Darlene Norman,mayor of the Region of Queens, Aqualitas is now a top-five employer in the area.
Some of Aqualitas’ staff are former employees at the mill, which was shuttered in 2012 after operating for more than 70 years, while other locals who left the province in search of employment have now found a reason to return.
“We have former employees (of Bowater). We have some people that have moved here, bought houses here, are raising new families here, so it’s a really nice sort of synergy,” says Aqualitas CEO Myrna Gillis.
Because of its relatively unique approach to growing pot,Aqualitas’ investment in research and development has been significant, both in time and dollars. One of the challenges of growing with aquaponics is ensuring the plants get the correct nutrients, especially as the operation scales up.
Now going on year three, however, the system has matured and the work is paying off, Gillis says.
“If you have the patience to let it build up, you can really get the benefits of it,” she says. “Theplants are really healthy and that’s the main thing. When you can have a plant that’s healthy, then you’re going to have good potency and good terpene profiles and good quality on the finished product.”
Gillis sees the aquaponic approach as a modern take on a local economy that has long been reliant on agriculture and fishing.
When the Bowater plant closed, Queens County mayor Darlene Norman says “a great sense of uncertainty and fear” followed. Aqualitas helped alleviate some of those concerns and Norman credits the company’s environmental focus as one of the reasons why the community has embraced them.
“Here on the coast, everybody thinks environment, and so that factor is just one that makes them very welcomed,” Norman says. “They filled a very big void. Staff appears very happy to work there. It’s been a win-win situation.”
Before moving into cannabis, Gillis spent 25 years working as a disabilities lawyer, where she often heard about the benefits of medical pot from her clients. The company sells its medical products under the Aqualitas banner while the recreational products are branded as Reef. And though recreational sales make up a larger percentage of the company’s revenue, the medical side remains a core focus, Gillis says.
“For us, medical isn’t just selling medical, it’s trying to advance what we know about cannabis as medicine and working with the people that actually get those kinds of things across the finish line,” she says.
Aqualitas is involved with numerous studies, including a U.S. study focused on treating PTSD with cannabis, as well as participating in the University Health Networks’ nation-wide clinical trials studying cannabis use for treating insomnia, chronic pain, anxiety and depression.
The company’s medical patient advisory board recently met about initiatives in Nova Scotia, including working with researchers and physicians to study the efficacy of using cannabis to treat Alzheimer’s and restless leg syndrome.
“When we started at this recreational wasn’t on the horizon,” Gillis says. “So this part of the plan has gone along as well as we could have hoped for. And then obviously having the recreational market and access to cannabis for everyone is a really great thing.”
In keeping an eye on sustainability, the company has also focused on reducing waste in its packaging, trying to incorporate cardboard, paper, and other recyclable materials as much as possible. Gillis says Aqualitas has also collaborated with Sana Packaging on its line of ocean sourced plastic containers.