LETHBRIDGE - When most people think of a marijuana growing operation, the picture that most often comes to mind is a dark basement or warehouse, tubing and ventilation hoses, dozens of electrical-grid draining lights, and wires everywhere.
That couldn't be further from what Fifty First Parallel Company President Jason Kujath says he and his team are planning for Lethbridge's Sherring Industrial Park.
In fact, not only will the massive greenhouse facility use far less electricity and water than a traditional grow-op, but the company is also working on signing research contracts with the University of Lethbridge and Lethbridge College, and will embark upon a number of local employment initiatives.
Fifty First Parallel is a private Canadian company, which applied to Health Canada for permission to built a cannabis facility in Nov. 2016, after working on the application for about six months.
The business plan was formed after the application was submitted and Kujath and his partner and co-founder Sonny Mottahed began working with a company in Colorado called "Live Well Enlightened Health" (LivWell).
The company operates 14 stores in Colorado and Oregon and also operates its own 180,000 square foot growing facility.
LivWell will operate and run the facility in Lethbridge on a third party basis, and is currently their biggest shareholder. Fifty First Parallel has also licensed all of their IP.
Kujath himself is a tax lawyer, while Mottahed is an investment banker. Other partners and board members include a former RCMP Assistant Commissioner, a Production Supervisor from Maple Leaf Pork, and another investment banker with assignments totalling $5 billion.
Energy and Water Consumption
The reason cannabis was grown in basements or dark warehouses for so long using artificial light, was for security purposes, says Kujath - not because it was the optimal way to grow the plant.
"I think the best reference," he explains, "is that we wouldn't really want to eat a tomato grown in a basement, more so than we would want to eat a tomato grown in a greenhouse. And ultimately, we don't plan to grow cannabis in a basement - type bunker, but in a greenhouse."
That way, electrical costs are also reduced by up to 90 per cent compared with the cost of using typical lighting systems.
That doesn't mean however, that there won't be any artificial lighting. Lethbridge was chosen as the location for the massive growing and production facility especially because of the amount of sunlight the city gets each year - on average - more than 2500 hours, or about 333 days.
For those days when there isn't enough sunlight, Kujath says special LED lights, which use 60 per cent less energy than regular bulbs will be used to try and ensure excessive amounts of electricity aren't being consumed.
The amount of water needed for growing the massive amounts of marijuana plants could also potentially strain local supplies. However, Kujath says they'll be using rain collection barrels, and within the gutter systems, the condensation collected indoors will also be fed into special tanks.
"The cannabis plant requires an unbelievable amount of water per plant, per day. Ultimately, by collecting rainwater and using greenhouses, instead of having entirely artificial input into your facility.... we now can move to more agricultural practices which focus on sustainability."
Product Quality Control, Genetic Testing and Research
"Quality control is a fundamental part of every licensed producer's business plan," says Kujath.
He says to go through Health Canada regulations, quality control and assurance is of the utmost importance, even before an application to become a cannabis producer is submitted.
"We've hired someone from the agri-food business in Lethbridge who's coming in, and they have quite a senior role within that business right now, who is moving over to us."
That person will be in charge of keeping detailed records of procedures and internal testing for every single batch produced, then submitting those tests to Health Canada. All of the records will have to be kept on file for at least two years. A record of who the product is sold to on an on-going basis much also be kept.
As the business grows, they also want to create their own unique plants and strains.
"We're currently acquiring genetics... looking to import genetics through a group out of country. And using those genetics, we are going to be undertaking a breeding program within our facility to develop our proprietary genetics which will cater to consumer tastes."
Up to this point, Kujath says they've collected volumes of information from their partners in Colorado over the last decade, showing which strains consumers prefer.
The company has also been in talks with the University of Lethbridge for the last year and a half to try and establish some form of research partnership on an on-going basis, including potential internships or job placements after graduation.
And a technical MOU (memorandum of understanding) has been signed with Lethbridge College, to develop a research partnership going forward for a practical research partnership in terms of growing practices.
"We really do want to work in the Lethbridge community, and that was a focus of our business plan on the production side of it. That was the core reason we chose Lethbridge, was the access to a large labour force that is skilled in agricultural practices and have access to the two post-secondary institutions. We thought that was a key advantage for us."
Retail Stores and Employment Opportunities
Much of the product the company produces will be sold in their own retail stores throughout the province - one of which they hope to have open and ready for business in Lethbridge, the first day marijuana sales to the public become legal.
The location however, can't be determined until provincial regulations are set. They'll purchase their product for their 11 stores across the province, from the AGLC as per regulations.
At the greenhouse and production facility in north Lethbridge, Kujath hopes to implement several employment initiatives.
"It's not a fully hashed out program yet. But there's a large number of jobs within our facility that are relatively simple jobs, that don't take a really high skill set. We feel we can create up to 25 jobs for groups that are under employed. So, we're really excited about doing that and giving back to the community."
It was important, he says for the company to identify the number of jobs where they could potentially reach out to the community and employ people, including those with developmental disabilities, that otherwise would struggle finding work.
On day one of operations, Kujath says they'll also be hiring up to 60 workers throughout Lethbridge. That number will go up to 150, as the facility grows.
So, when will Fifty First Parallel's production facility actually be up and running? It's not that far down the road.
A ground-breaking ceremony is expected in mid-March, with construction continuing throughout the summer.
By October 2018, the first 80,000 square feet should be be operational, and Lethbridge will be home to the biggest cannabis production facility in the province.
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