Photos: This is what harvesting 60 acres of cannabis looks like

Note from the editor: A version of this article first appeared on Forbes.com.

It’s October, which means for outdoor cannabis cultivators in Canada, it’s also harvest season. Nearly 50 firms across the country are licensed to grow outdoors, but just one can say its first harvest has been in the works for nearly seven years.

Despite the perception of Canada as a cold and snowy landscape, cannabis has been grown outdoors here for generations, long before prohibition was lifted in 2018. In Rock Creek, a small town in British Columbia’s Okanagan region, an area adored for its long, dry summers and endless rows of wineries and fruit orchards, a portion of a sprawling 2,200-acre ranch once dedicated to ginseng and cherries is now filled with rows upon rows of cannabis and hemp.

Just one section of SpeakEasy's 60-acre farm in Rock Creek, B.C. (Photo by Amanda Siebert)
Founder Marc Geen points out different cultivars like Apricot Kush and Kootenay Fruit. (Photo by Amanda Siebert)
(Photo by Amanda Siebert)
(Photo by Amanda Siebert)

More than a century in farming

It’s quite the sight for SpeakEasy founder Marc Geen, whose family has grown fruit trees in the region for 120 years. His father, Merv, former chairman of the board at food and beverage manufacturer SunRype, was on board with the idea when Marc and brother Pat approached him and suggested taking up a new crop might be a good business move after they had seen how private medical growers in the area had taken advantage of its fertile soil and arid climate.

In 2013, shortly after federal regulations were introduced to allow for the commercial cultivation of medical cannabis but long before federal politicians had even uttered the word ‘legalization,’ the Geens founded SpeakEasy Cannabis Co. with the goal of growing cannabis outdoors, and their wait began. At this time, no provisions for outdoor cultivation were in place, and the first outdoor licence wouldn’t be awarded until 2019.

“It took us six years, nine months, and three days to achieve our licence,” says Marc, who throughout the application process endured three separate sets of federal regulations and constructed warehouses on his land when he thought outdoor cultivation wouldn’t be permitted. In 2020, it finally happened, and SpeakEasy added 2,600,000 square feet to its licence.

Throughout the process, their application, which began as a 50-page document Marc and Merv filled out by hand, morphed into a 1,500-page file complete with certificates and letters from surveyors, engineers, lawyers and more. Today, 60 acres of the Rock Creek farm are dedicated to cannabis plants and surrounded by a million-dollar state-of-the-art security system. Across the road, another 60 acres (contained in a comparably lacklustre fence) are filled with hemp plants, intended for CBD extraction.

(Photo by Amanda Siebert)
After plants are harvested, they are sorted into bins and taken to greenhouses for drying. (Photo by Amanda Siebert)
Each drying greenhouse is labeled by cultivar. (Photo by Amanda Siebert)
Employees hang plants to dry. (Photo by Amanda Siebert)

“This is agriculture”

“It was a long grind,” says Geen on dealing with political changes and the seemingly constant opposition from Health Canada. “But they seem to have come to the realization that this isn’t satan in a jar. This is agriculture. I’ve grown ginseng and cherries in this exact spot, and this is no different. This is just a crop, but there’s a ton of culture that comes with it.”

Companies that don’t understand that culture, Geen says, particularly in British Columbia where growers have made a name for ‘B.C. bud,’ seem to be the same companies that grow and sell subpar cannabis. To counter that norm, Geen hired expert growers who had refined their skills on the black market, some “with 20 to 30 years of experience under their belts,” he says.

“They’ve dialled in their genetics over years. It takes a long time to find out what the plant really likes best,” he says. Although each grower is under a licence with Geen’s name on it, he says he’s working for them. “They’re essentially consultants, but it’s their show. They’re the master growers and whatever they need to do their job—as long as it’s compliant—they get.”

(Photo by Amanda Siebert)
(Photo by Amanda Siebert)
(Photo by Amanda Siebert)
(Photo by Amanda Siebert)

The silver lining of having to wait so long for a licence, Geen says, was that he and his growers were able to test the genetics the firm had acquired and determine which ones were best suited to the dry environment, where in the summer, temperatures range from 32 to 35 degrees C, or 89 to 95 degrees F.

“We’ve been working on these strains for a while,” he says, pointing out two named Apricot Kush and Kootenay Fruit, each expected to clock in at between 15 and 20 percent THC. “We started with 250 different strains and had them in side-by-side trials doing weekly walk-throughs, with a list of things I was looking for in each plant. That was three years ago.”

Portions of the farm’s 60 acres are divided into blocks, where different varieties receive different treatment. Some are planted in wide pots four feet across, while others are planted in smaller pots. Others still are planted directly in the ground. “We take everything from a very agricultural perspective,” Geen says. “It’s not this crazy laboratory. You don’t grow cherries in a laboratory.”

(Photo by Amanda Siebert)
(Photo by Amanda Siebert)
(Photo by Amanda Siebert)
(Photo by Amanda Siebert)

What do you do with 70,000 kilos of cannabis?

As the 80-plus staff at SpeakEasy, now the region’s largest employer, work to harvest 60,000 cannabis plants, Geen estimates that about 40,000 pounds (around 18,000 kilograms) of this season’s harvested flower will be flash-frozen and used to make live rosin and other concentrated products. The remainder will be sold as pre-rolls and dried flower. The benefit of cultivating the starting material outdoors is an incredible reduction in overhead, with a cost-per-gram of roughly CAD$0.04, according to Geen.

“Everything that won’t go into flower will go into making some kind of extract,” he says. “There’s very little waste which is why we’re able to get our costs so low. This will allow us to make concentrates and other products at a price that even the black market can’t produce.”

While the harvest is an exciting milestone for the team at SpeakEasy, not everyone is convinced that outdoor cannabis is a good thing for Canada’s struggling market, where some fear that so much cheap product will further contribute to already falling prices.

(Photo by Amanda Siebert)
(Photo by Amanda Siebert)
(Photo by Amanda Siebert)

Peter Miller is the chairman of the board at Agripharm, an Ontario-based licensed producer of medical cannabis that was among the few firms to harvest cannabis outdoors in 2019, when only a handful were licensed to do so. Miller says his team learned important lessons about strain selection, feeding, watering, and harvest methodologies last year and has applied them to this year’s harvest.

“Indoors, we have so much control of all variables, and we can schedule harvests to balance with our labour capacity,” Miller says. “Outdoors, so much is outside of our control, so we have to work with mother nature rather than against, and that can make everything much more dynamic. In many ways, however, if you nurture healthy soil, and manage water efficiently, the quality of the flower can be incredibly good.”

Having sold through last year’s flower, Miller says most of Agripharm’s incoming 13-acre harvest will be flash-frozen and used to make live rosin and other extracts, a category he predicts outdoor cannabis will play a very important role in. But will outdoor flower be able to compete? “I think I'll join the chorus of pessimists about large-scale outdoor for the flower market, except as pre-roll inputs to low-priced products,” he says.

Plants in SpeakEasy's indoor facility are tended to by former legacy market growers. (Photo by Amanda Siebert)
(Photo by Amanda Siebert)
(Photo by Amanda Siebert)
(Photo by Amanda Siebert)

Back at SpeakEasy, Geen recognizes that the ‘go big’ stock play employed by other firms in the space hasn’t gone well for them, and believes that the quality of his firm’s product could displace the market’s existing supply of low-price flower. With his team’s experienced growers and unique genetics, he’s hopeful that SpeakEasy can carve out a place for itself as a respected producer growing genuine B.C. bud, even if it does intend to sell some of its harvest in a market already filled with dried flower.

“A lot of the mistakes these companies have made is they’ve just tried to get as big as possible to get as big as possible. It wasn’t a question of, ‘what does the market want to bear,’” he says. “Our goal isn’t to expand indefinitely, we want to expand to fill the size of the market that we can supply, and do what the people want.”

Without nearby meal options, SpeakEasy staff can buy lunch at the informal Grass Hill Grill, a private on-site diner featuring daily home-cooked specials. (Photo by Amanda Siebert)