Introducing the BC Craft Farmers Co-Op
The BC Craft Farmers Co-Op shouldn’t have to exist. For decades, British Columbia has been Canada’s natural home of cannabis. Thousands of small farmers have cultivated high-quality and potent cannabis known as “BC Bud.”
But the federal government’s overregulation of cannabis, and the BC government’s lack of backbone, means thousands of these farmers are still underground. The government created a “micro-producer” class to bring the legacy market out of the shadows. But as of 2022, only 70 craft farmers have received their approval.
Hence, the importance of the BC Craft Farmers Co-Op. An organization dedicated to assisting small and medium-sized BC cannabis producers. They want BC to remain a cannabis leader and innovator. They wish to provide medical and recreational consumers with the highest quality BC cannabis products. But that can’t be done when the government requires start-up capital at $200,000 on the low end. And up to $1,000,000 to be eligible for a licence.
Of the 1,200,000+ square metres of legal cannabis cultivation in Canada, craft farmers only account for 0.17%. The BC Craft Farmers Co-Op wants to see that number increase drastically. Volunteer Secretary David Hurford recently spoke to me about the BC Craft Farmers Co-Op and some of his thoughts on the current cannabis landscape in Canada.
What Does the BC Craft Farmers Co-Op think of the Cannabis Industry Table promised in the latest budget?
“It was good to see the federal government announce some initiative in the budget. But if they just engage the same people they’ve been engaging with… the system is really built for the large producers, and they’re having trouble. So I think the government, through the efforts with Industry Canada, if they can start to move this away from Health Canada a little bit, that’s a step in the right direction. But if Industry Canada continues just to involve the corporations that control the cannabis industry in this country, it’s not going to go anywhere. They really have to reach out to the experts.”
Who Should Regulate Cannabis in Canada?
“Our view is cannabis policy in Canada should be written in British Columbia. When it comes down to writing automobile policy in Canada, we don’t write it in BC. We write it in Ontario. Because that’s where they build cars. When we write maple syrup policy, we don’t write it in Saskatchewan; we write it in Quebec because that’s where they do maple syrup. When we do canola policy, we write it in Saskatchewan. Where should we be writing cannabis policy from? British Columbia.”
Why Do You Think That’s Not the Case?
“This is a top-down policy written by people who don’t know much about cannabis who are getting lobbied directly by LPs who have a lot of resources to try and affect the changes they want. But the government’s got it wrong. They’ve got to be much more bottom-up. And they’re too much top-down right now. So the idea of having Industry Canada more involved in the sector is a good step. We want to participate in that process. We hope they’ll listen to the experts because the policy for cannabis in Canada really should be coming from the people who know how to grow cannabis and know the cannabis industry, and that’s British Columbia.
“It’s nothing against the folks in other provinces. We have great craft farmers across the country. In fact, from the co-op’s perspective, we see a national movement of craft farmers. Similar in some extent to the wheat farmers did in the early 1900s by creating the Wheat Board.”
What Are Some of the Challenges for the BC Craft Farmers Co-Op?
“Stigma. That’s a big challenge. It means banks won’t lend to small farmers. Insurance won’t talk to small farmers. Some small farmers have to give up their house insurance. So there’s all these institutional barriers. Municipal governments in this country who have been given a veto by provincial and federal governments haven’t been given any resources by those governments to accept applications. Municipal governments have very little tax base. Provincial and federal governments have just kind of thrown this at them, saying, ‘here you be the gatekeeper now.’ And they haven’t given municipal governments any incentive. We’ve been calling on the provincial and federal governments to give municipalities an economic development grant. So they can move our projects up to the top of the line and see these applications as job creators. For every craft farmer Health Canada approves, we’re creating four and a half jobs.”
You’d Think They’d Listen To the BC Craft Farmers Co-Op About Jobs.
“Our estimation is that the 6500 medical growers in BC, even if just 10% could pass the Health Canada test, we’re talking about 700 farmers. And that’s a very low number. That’s 700 farmers creating four jobs each; that’s 3000 jobs in BC overnight. Or in the first year. And that’s just direct jobs because they’re going to the hardware store, they’re going to go to the nutrient store, they’re going to create indirect jobs.
“So this is an opportunity that governments are really missing, and I think stigma still has a lot to do with it. The public is way ahead, but it’s still officials within the government that have been prosecuting people for decades, police forces, some banks and financial institutions that just haven’t got the memo. And it’s taking them a while to get out of a prohibition mindset. But it’s within these institutions. I don’t think the stigma is there in the public, anywhere like it used to be. The stigma within institutions is still holding us back. And I think they’re actually waiting for a signal from the government because all the messages the government is sending about craft farmers is we don’t want you. Look at the system they set up.
“I’ve spent 30 years in government, designing all kinds of government programs. And I know the difference between designing a government program to succeed and designing a government to fail. And this is a government program – the micro class regulation program – is designed to fail. Which is awful.”
It sounds like it’s more than just stigma holding BC back.
“The stigma, the barriers to entry on the regulatory side that make you come up with a couple hundred grand just even to be eligible. Those are the real barriers. And then, of course, once you get into the system, yes, there are additional barriers. But we think some of those can be solved with direct sales programs, you know, where farmers and retailers can make their own deal by allowing people to come to farms to purchase directly. We think consumers are actually interested in buying local and understand that there may be a premium attached to that because it’s such high quality.
“We haven’t really been able to test that because when you only have 70 farmers in BC that have been approved in three years, you don’t have that critical mass. They’re all scattered, and they’re all spread out. So they have no clout. They don’t have any political clout. They don’t have the purchasing power. Part of the Co-Op mandate is to pool their purchasing power, so they’ll all buy the same things, and we can all buy them at once and get a much better price.”
Is There Anything Governments Can Do?
“The caps on micros, 2100 sq feet? Those should be doubled. Overnight. Why not let the small farmer go to 4200 sq feet at least? In addition to being a good number, it doubles their yield without doubling their expenses. Why not do something simple like that? That would go a long way to help make these farms more profitable.
“These are easy things for the Minister to do. They can literally do them in an afternoon.
“Governments aren’t investing in any kind of sector strategy. Governments are investing all the time. We heard the BC government opening a BC Hydrogen office, pouring millions of dollars into that to get BC ready for all these hydrogen jobs that are coming down the pipe. Good idea, but you know what their job projections are in the BC hydrogen industry? Four thousand new jobs by 2035.
“We can produce 4000 new jobs with 1000 farmers in the next two years. And yet there’s no coordinated effort by the government, whether it’s on tourism, whether it’s on capacity building, to get people trained up on growing cannabis in a modern way. There’s no effort to encourage women entrepreneurs. Indigenous growers are still feeling shut out.
“There are no incentives for municipalities. There’s no access to any capital. Typically governments work with each other in sectors, whether it’s forestry or wine industry or aerospace industry or whatever. And they fund partnerships all the time to grow these sectors. Sectors that can create jobs and economic growth, but the government hasn’t even touched cannabis. They don’t even see it really as an economic development activity.
You Mentioned the System was Designed to Fail. So it’s Not Just Incompetence?
“It’s definitely not incompetence. My experience working in government is people who work in government know what they’re doing. This is a program that’s designed to fail. No one in the government wanted the legalization of cannabis. Mr. Trudeau stuck his neck out to make the promise. Half his caucus didn’t want it. This didn’t come from the bottom up in the bureaucracy. It came from a politician. The bureaucracy, if they still had their way, cannabis would still be illegal.
“The only time we’ve had innovation in cannabis is either from a politician showing leadership or a court telling the government they have to do it. Innovation does not come from the bureaucracy. In fact, they don’t want this.
“Now, of course, the Conservative government brought in a regime of large producers who resemble to Health Canada a pharmaceutical industry. They’re very large and corporate. Something that Health Canada is more used to. They’re not used to dealing with small farmers in William’s Lake. They don’t even know the difference between Smithers and William’s Lake. So I think they’re just more comfortable in Ottawa dealing with corporations and lobbyists and that kind of infrastructure. Health Canada certainly is. They’re not comfortable dealing with the small cannabis farmer who’s living outside of town in William’s Lake.
The BC Craft Farmers Co-Op works with BC’s legacy craft farmers to grow and strengthen a network to bring everyone into the legal market. You can find out more about them here.