A hydroponic farmer in Mount Pearl says it's tragic to see a 230,000-square-foot cannabis production facility sitting empty in St. John's when he knows its potential.
"It's really such a shame because the building is huge. It's a state-of-the-art cannabis facility, and all that could be easily converted over to food production," said Scott Neary, CEO of hydroponics company Green Farm N.L.
"We could produce a huge, staggering, amount of food in that facility."
The production facility in the White Hills area was built for Canopy Growth. In 2017, in anticipation of the legalization of recreational marijuana in Canada, the Ontario-based company promised to produce 8,000 kilograms of cannabis annually in the east end of St. John's.
But in 2020, Canopy announced its plans had changed. The almost 150 jobs the facility was expected to create in Newfoundland vanished. The company closed operations in St. John's, Fredericton, Edmonton, Bowmanville, Ont., and its outdoor cannabis grow operations in Saskatchewan to cut costs and accelerate its "path to profitability," said the company's CEO at the time.
Indoor farm growing
For the past three years, Green Farm N.L. has been building a business growing greens — including lettuce, kale, arugula, basil and bok choy — hydroponically. The Mount Pearl-based company delivers produce to restaurants and families that subscribe to its weekly service.
Neary estimates they deliver to 250-300 families per week. He says the Canopy Growth facility could serve more than 10 times that, up to 30,000 to 40,000 families per week.
"That's huge. That's a massive chunk of our population, and that would more than double Newfoundland and Labrador's fresh food production. So that's what's possible," said Neary.
For him it's more than a pipe dream. Neary says Green Farm N.L. has been growing steadily and is getting ready to expand.
"We're constantly doubling and doubling in the space that we're in and we're definitely outgrowing our facility here. So now it's our goal to scale this up to the next stage so we can continue to be this example of what's possible in Newfoundland," he said.
Neary said Green Farm N.L. is looking at building a bigger facility of its own but using some of the cannabis facility, with 81,000 square feet of growing space, would be a better option.
"It is too big for any one food producer to take on right now but I think it would be possible to lease out different parts of it for different types of production" he said.
"I think there's a really strong case for a public-private partnership, for the government to partner with private industry to create solutions here in a fast, effective way to push forward indoor farming as fast as we can."
In a statement, the provincial Department of Fisheries, Forestry and Agriculture told CBC News noted that it doesn't own the facility but is "always open to innovative ideas and opportunities to further advance food self-sufficiency in Newfoundland and Labrador."
"Farmers and producers, including new entrants to the agriculture sector, are encouraged to reach out to the department with their ideas, and avail of the many federal and provincial funding programs in place that support agricultural initiatives," says the statement.
Future of cannabis production facility uncertain
Canopy's own documents show that in 2018 the Canopy Growth committed to pay more than $24 million over five years to a numbered company that owns the land. Those documents also show Canopy has the option to buy the production facility at the end of that five-year period.
On Jan. 5, in an email to CBC News, Canopy confirmed it continues to lease the land but said it isn't ready to talk about next steps yet.