No one was as surprised as Warren Bravo and Steve LeBlanc when Health Canada approved their application to become a licensed producer of cannabis for medical purposes. As co-founders of Green Relief, the business partners have leveraged their experience in the construction industry to make the business a success.
Bravo, is president of the Hamilton office of Bravo Cement Contracting, a third-generation family-owned contracting company offering concrete flatwork at offices throughout southern Ontario. LeBlanc is vice-president of Unique Restoration, a contractor specializing in concrete work.
"We saw an opportunity and applied for a medical marijuana license with plans to incorporate aquaponics, using cultivation of fish as part of a virtuous environmental cycle. We thought all of the licenses to produce and sell would be granted to big pharma and big tobacco companies—anybody but a couple of ham-and-egger construction guys—but we received a letter of intent from Health Canada on Dec. 24, 2013. That was enough of a push for us to finalize the design of our underground bunker building."
The application process required the partners to provide detailed plans, not only for the construction of the facility and it security, but also the operation of the plant. Bravo and LeBlanc toured grow-ops across North America to research best practices among successful growers. The partners naturally gravitated to building a concrete structure on 50 acres of farm land in Flamboro, Ont. owned by Bravo. The decision to incorporate aquaponics was as much a business decision as an ecological one. The facility could not be zoned to operate on Bravo's farmland because cannabis is not yet approved as an agricultural crop — however, fish farming met those criteria.
The grow-op building is a 32,000-sq.-ft. concrete bunker built into a hillside. The area was excavated and the concrete building was constructed to grade, roofed and then covered with three feet of overburden. Three-quarters of the building is buried with the south face exposed.
"We've been in construction in the Hamilton area for a decade and we were committed to using local Hamilton contractors to do the construction work," says Bravo. Contributing companies include general contractor Harm Schilthuis and Sons, T. Lloyd Electric Ontario Ltd., Besseling Mechanical Inc., and a slate of local engineering firms.
Green Relief received its approval to begin selling marijuana to the medical market in April, following a rigorous inspection of the facilities and security clearances for company personnel.
Bravo says that the aquaponics component of the growth cycle is working well. The fish create waste water, which is enriched and used to fertilize marijuana plants. The marijuana plants thrive on the components fish don't like, purifying the water, which is returned to the fish tanks. A bonus for local food banks—Green Relief is already donating 400 tilapia to Second Harvest every five weeks. The company will also be experimenting with the production of freshwater prawn and koi.
"We're on the leading edge of sustainable agriculture," says Bravo. "We're the only marijuana producer in North America, and perhaps the world, incorporating aquaponics into our business. It's a completely controlled environment day in and day out. I can tell you three years in advance what the harvest day will be for a crop of cannabis plants."
Green Relief now employs 28 people and expansion of the facility is imminent as the company plans to break ground on a similar facility covering an additional 210,000 square feet.
"We're also starting design of a 1.5-million-square-foot facility in a neighbouring jurisdiction," says Bravo. "That will make us the largest organic grow-op in the world."
Bravo says the company will forego recreational marijuana and continue to focus on the medical marijuana market.
"We're committed to working on the scientific forefront of what this product can achieve medicinally," he says.
"It's a new industry and your plans are only limited by your imagination. As construction guys, Steve and I like to do things methodically, grab the bull by the horns and get things done."