Article by Tom Morrison, Stratford Beacon Herald
Using natural sunlight and the breeze from Lake Erie, growers with an outdoor cannabis farm near Wheatley are about to enter their second season with a few lessons from last year.
Mariwell, located on Talbot Trail, was likely the first company to legally grow the plant in an outdoor setting last year. The eight-acre operation is run by president Jeff McAllister and vice president of finance Theresa Robert, who previously owned McAllister Courier near Chatham.
Master grower Brendon Dittmer said he learned last year how beneficial a lakeside operation can be for cannabis plants. In other areas, mould can be more of a problem, he said.
“We get amazing breeze and it helps maintain the plants,” he said. “It helps maintain a good temperature at the canopy level as well, which increases our yield and our quality of our product.”
Dittmer started growing cannabis for a multiple sclerosis patient, who had a 25-plant license, about 17 years ago. He then worked in indoor facilities and greenhouses, including helping set up greenhouses and moving an operation from indoors to outdoors.
The way the plants are arranged will also be different this year. Dittmer said they are using the “California method,” which gives the plants more space.
“We don’t want to crowd the plants because a lot of strains are dependent on touch,” he said. “As soon as they feel another plant touching them, they actually stop their footprint wide” and move “towards vertical growth instead.”
Robert said with fewer plants this year, they’ll need fewer employees come harvest. Last year, about 12 worked in the fields, but they will likely hire six or seven this year, she said. About five people work year-round.
McAllister said the operation used about 50,000 litres of water per day during the last growing season, and the company has an automated system which lets them target different areas in the field and monitor the moisture levels in the ground.
The indoor facility on site has two drying rooms which can each hold about 1,000 kilograms at a time. McAllister said it usually takes about seven to 10 days to get the product’s moisture down to 10 or 15 per cent.
The rooms usually dry different strains at the same time, with one room usually a few days behind the other in the drying cycle, he said.
The facility is also where Dittmer works on cultivating the plants they’ll use in the upcoming growing season. He said he chooses a strain based on its terpenes – which provide distinct flavours and promote different effects – as well as the CBD and THC content and grow time.
The plants that go in the ground are clones from the “mother” plant. McAllister said they will have between 6,000 and 7,000 plants ready for the field this year.
After leaving the indoor facility, the plants enter the hoop house, a structure with a plastic covering, “to harden the plants,” Dittmer said. He said this is to get them away from the indoor climate before moving them onto the field in stages.
“Near the end of the season is where you have to pay attention and harvest at the right time,” Dittmer said. “One thing that I noticed from a lot of product out there is that it’s harvested later than it should be and you’re not getting the highest quality possible.”
The farm will be using organic waste from a nearby greenhouse to “enrich” the soil, Robert said. McAllister said they will plant nine different herbs, which will likely be donated to the community.
He said the herbs also will act as a way to sort of have “nature fight nature.”
“It’s bringing in the right bugs to kill the bugs that we don’t want,” McAllister said.
Mariwell currently has its processing and cultivation license from Health Canada. Robert said they are hoping to have their sales license by the fall so they can sell to the Ontario Cannabis Store and other provinces.