In the heart of Turtle Valley, above Chase, BC there is a state-of-the-art agricultural operation that is the only one like it in the world. By combining inland salmon farming with a hydroponic cannabis operation, two former hockey players are making history producing high quality products at a lower cost. In addition, they also raise free-range bison sustainably, which ties in with their ranching heritage.
Habitat Craft Cannabis founders Rudi Schiebel and Laine Keyes both experienced hockey injuries that they treated successfully using cannabis. Consequently, they began their company under the Marijuana for Medical Purposes Regulations in 2013 and decided to explore the idea of using aquaponics with koi fish for fertilizing the cannabis. After some initial success, they realized that organic coho salmon would be more marketable and began building their operations on Keyes’ family’s fifth generation property.
To achieve their dream, Schiebel and Keyes needed significant capital. They began by securing funding from family and friends before raising the majority of funds they needed from investors, all totalling seven million dollars. Their first step was converting the 70-year-old barn on leased land across from their bison ranch into a high-tech facility that includes fish tanks, grow rooms, and a room filled with high-tech pumps and other equipment. Key to their success was bringing in Justin Henry to be the aquaculture director, as he had 25 years of experience in the inland fish farming industry.
A one-of-a-kind process was developed that recycles the water used for both the fish and the cannabis. The waste from the fish is filtered and processed using microorganisms to aerobically digest it into nutrients and CO2 for the plants. The evaporated water from the plants’ transpiration is also captured and reused. All the parameters are controlled with computerized instrumentation, including temperatures, pH, and nutrient levels. They consider their complex technology to be a trade secret rather than patentable intellectual property and would have kudos for anyone who could successfully replicate it.
The concept of growing fish and food together is thousands of years old and dates back to the Aztecs and Chinese, whereas the technology we have developed and the crops and fish we are producing are unique.
The process begins four times a year when they receive 550 female salmon fry from an inland fish farm on the coast, who ship by air to Kamloops. The growing fish are fed an organic formula that includes sustainably grown insects and are raised in a series of six tanks, ending with the finish tank. While coho take four years to grow to maturity in the wild, these fish mature in 18 months by revising the timing of lighting, which speeds up their perception of time. Every week they harvest 25 fish that weigh approximately 3.5 kg each, which are sold to the Quaaout Lodge and Fisherman’s Market in Kamloops.
Given that their medical licence limits Habitat’s growing area to 200 square metres, they only produce about 800 kg of craft cannabis, which has done well in the BC market because of its recognized quality. One day, they hope to have farm gate sales, which would be far more profitable.
This winter, I had an opportunity to visit the Habitat production facility, where I had to wear a disposable white coveralls, shower cap, and paper sandals over my shoes. Each room was antiseptically clean and filled with high-tech equipment. There were pipes going everywhere, gauges, valves, and electronic control panels all to keep the fish and cannabis flourishing.
After the tour I met many of the staff in the lunchroom and saw the newly arrived certificates that recognized Habitat as a certified organic producer. When asked if Habitat was the first of its kind, Schiebel remarked how “the concept of growing fish and food together is thousands of years old and dates back to the Aztecs and Chinese, whereas the technology we have developed and the crops and fish we are producing are unique.”
Schiebel also explained how monoculture agriculture has solved some problems, but also creates many environmental problems. The way of the future is what Habitat is doing, creating sustainable, circular, symbiotic farms that support healthy ecosystems by merging ancient concepts with 21st century technology.
Growth is on the horizon for the Habitat team, as they hope to expand their four tonne per year production to one day raising 1,000 tonnes, as the demand for organic salmon is very high. The market for cannabis has not been as reliable, so their goal is to one day also grow vegetables, beginning with tomatoes and cucumbers.
Habitat’s unique combination of aquaculture with hydroponic agriculture using LED lighting increases the food production per acre of land, eliminates the need for chemical fertilizers, and conserves water. This sustainable production system has a minimal carbon footprint and little impact on the environment. One day, if insect farming were added, production would become nearly self-sufficient.
Systems like these have the potential to help provide greater food security along with creating sustainable and circular economic development.
Author, environmentalist and back-to-the-lander, Jim Cooperman has lived above Shuswap Lake since 1969. His book, Everything Shuswap, is slated for a third printing. www.shuswappassion.ca.