A local business is hoping to bring organic hemp production to Fort St. James.
Arthur Halleran, who is the founder and president of Northern Lights Organics, says greenhouses for hemp seed production are currently being built on his 600-acre farm, which is located around nine kilometres outside the town.
Halleran’s company was acquired by Weekend Unlimited, a larger umbrella outfit, after he heard the company was seeking an organic-certified farm to produce hemp and, eventually, medical marijuana.
Halleran and his partner Shirley started Northern Lights Organic Farm in 2012, when Halleran moved back to his hometown of Fort St. James. Initially, they were producing syrups, jams and jellies from a variety of berries, as well as birch syrup.
“We did that, but nature doesn’t read your business plan. Some years we’d have good berries and others, we’d have not-so-good berries,” says Halleran.
He let his organic certification lapse last winter, but then a friend approached him about Weekend Unlimited.
“He was involved in the cannabis business and he said he knows a group that was looking for an organic parcel. That’s how it started.”
In an October press release regarding the acquisition, Weekend Unlimited chief executive officer and president Cody Corrubia said organic cannabis commands a 24 per cent premium, and is preferred by customers. “There are only three licenced producers currently that are organic, which puts this acquisition [of Northern Lights Organics] in a prime position to lead the industry in the hemp, CBD offerings,” Corrubia was quoted saying.
Halleran has had his property inspected to again achieve organic certification, and is waiting on the paperwork. He plans to grow an organic, high Cannabidoil (CBD) hemp product to begin with, and also transition to include organically grown medical marijuana.
CBD is often used for pain relief, and it’s found in hemp. It’s also found in marijuana, explains Halleran, but with hemp, you don’t have the Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), which is the psychoactive element.
“There’s a big market [for CBD]; a lot of people use it,” says Halleran.
He grew a test crop last year under a third-party research licence, which proved the hemp will grow. Now it’s all about finding the right high-CBD variety that will grow best in the north.
“I have a small nursery greenhouse and we’re going to be planting the seeds in there, and then transplanting them to the large greenhouses we are building right now. We are building two 3,200 square-foot greenhouses and that’ll have the hemp varieties growing, and we are growing those for seeds.”
The seeds will then be planted over a larger area outside, to maximize the amount of product they can harvest. The greenhouses will be the seed factories, explains Halleran.
But there are still hoops to jump through to achieve the goal.
“There are a bunch of regulations. We have to get three growths of the variety we are testing, it has to be analyzed, those analyses have to be sent to Health Canada, so they test to make sure the genetics are stable. Once that happens, you can then register the seeds with Health Canada and then you can grow them in large quantities.”
Once the hemp is grown, it will be sold to another company that can extract the CBD, although Halleran plans to eventually have an extraction facility as part of his operation.
And he also has plans to grow organic medical marijuana. He says he’s submitted an application to Health Canada for the licence, which he hopes to receive by early spring or summer 2019. He’s planning the construction of more greenhouses for the medical marijuana plants, where he’ll be able to grow year-round.
Northern Lights Organics expects to receive its cultivation license prior to the end of 2019, although there is no guarantee that the license will be obtained.
Halleran, a geologist with a PhD in water chemistry, wanted to return to his roots in Fort St. James, and hopes to see the area prosper. He wants this venture to boost the area’s economy and employ locals as much as possible.
“I grew up here and went to high school here and my family is here … I’m a northern person.
“The whole idea for me here, this is a really good opportunity to provide 30 to 40 jobs here locally. I’m hiring and spending the money in Fort St. James first, and if I can’t find it here I go to Vanderhoof, and if I can’t find it there, I go to Prince George. But so far I’ve found that we have a lot of people here in Fort St. James.”
Once things get going, Halleran says he would like to train local people up, rather than bringing in expert workers from out of town.
“It’s to try to keep the money local and the jobs local. Once people get the training and the experience, they’ll be able to find a job anywhere in Canada,” says Halleran of the high-tech CBD extraction methods.
He also plans to organize a labour pool of people from Fort St. James as well as from the Nak’azdli Whut’en First Nation, which could provide part-time opportunities to those who want them.
“So say I need 10 people, and the labour pool is 20 … so some people might want to work three days a week … with that concept, it’s trying to utilize local labour,” says Halleran.
Along with the desire to boost the local economy, growing organic and being carbon neutral are important to Northern Lights Organics.
“Everything will be B.C. grown and local. Eventually, any greenhouses we will build for the hemp and also for the medical marijuana will be passive solar greenhouses, and they require less energy. My concept is to have a small biomass plant here that will generate electricity and heat from the waste products, and we have a lot of dead pine, and so on. So I’m trying to be carbon neutral to keep with the conversation that I’m organic,” says Halleran.
Halleran says the developments at the farm are a bit surreal, but also a welcome sign of progress.
“It started out as a small, family-run organic wild craft operation, started by Shirley and myself. My father, who is now 88, would be out picking berries for my jams and syrups, as was my sister Sandra. My mother, who also in now going to be 89, would make lunch and bring it out.
“It was a good time, and nice to see it evolve.”