By Jim Coooperman
In the heart of Turtle Valley 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 Laine’s family’s 5th generation property.
To achieve their dream they 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. Schiebel and Keyes consider this complex technology to be a trade secret rather than patentable intellectual property and would have kudos for anyone who could successfully replicate it.
The process begins four times a year when receive they 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 sq. m., they only produce about 800 kg of craft cannabis, which has done well in the B.C. market because of its recognized quality. One day, they hope to have farm gate sales, which would be far more profitable.
Growth is in the horizon for the Habitat team, as they hope to expand their four-metric ton per year production to one day raising 1,000 tons, 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. Since the available BC Hydro power is not adequate, they may have to move the operation closer to where there is more electricity available.
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 has little impact on the environment. One day if insect farming was 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. The Shuswap is fortunate to be home for such extraordinarily creative and productive young entrepreneurs.
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