At the same time, diet and lifestyle changes have led to increased global demand for protein sources like salmon, with the average person eating nearly twice as much seafood as they did just 50 years ago. This has led to overfishing, and as a result, many fish stocks including wild salmon have declined to historic lows.
What if there was a business model that addressed all of these issues simultaneously, with the added bonus of growing high-quality cannabis?
By harnessing the power of integrated multi-trophic aquaculture, a system in which the waste from one species (in this case, coho salmon) is used as the fertilizer and nutrients for another species (you guessed it: marijuana), Habitat, a B.C.-based craft cannabis producer, has built exactly that.
One Farm, Two Products
Located in the picturesque lakeside town of Chase, B.C., Habitat is a licensed producer with a micro cultivator designation, meaning its growing canopy cannot exceed 2,000 square feet—a small farm by most growers’ standards. But its business is bolstered by its ability to sell an entirely different product to the local economy an; one that’s produced in a sustainable way.
Founder and CEO Rudi Schiebel’s first foray into regenerative farming wasn’t with cannabis or salmon, but on a ranch farming bison. “Going down that road is what got me into agriculture. It was kind of by accident,” he says. “It was something not a lot of people were getting into, and it took a lot of hard work, but I saw opportunity in it. The world really needed ideas in the food production space, and I wanted to explore that.”
While working on the bison farm, one of Schiebel’s business partners was growing cannabis under a federal medical license, and he quickly took interest in the controlled environment required to grow good weed. That sparked an idea, and soon Schiebel wondered how he might bring some of the concepts of terrestrial agriculture into an indoor environment.
“To me, [cannabis production] wasn’t very sustainable. It required a lot of power, we were bringing in nutrients and soil, and it felt like it was missing a piece of that ecosystem,” he says. “That was the genesis of growing fish on the same farm and using the nutrients from the fish to grow cannabis to create that symbiotic, circular farming environment.”
Pilot Facility Combines Aquaculture And Hydroponics
To build Habitat’s pilot facility, Schiebel and team brought on in-land aquaculture expert Justin Henry, who helped build the environments for the coho salmon—large tanks Schiebel describes as “endless swimming pools with all-you-can-eat buffets and no predators.”
He breaks down the process further: “You’re feeding fish, they’re producing waste that then gets broken down by microbials and bacteria into the basic elements that make up the building blocks of life. That’s what the plants drink, through the aquaponic system, and uptake,” he says. “It’s the marrying of what would normally be a waste stream and using that as one of the inputs, instead of bringing in chemical nitrogen.”
All of this might sound like a lot of extra work just to grow some cannabis, but from both a quality and a cost-savings perspective, nutrient and waste recycling pays off.
First, the complexity of the natural environment provides the plants with far more than what they would receive if they were fed nutrients from a bottle, according to Schiebel. With their system dialled, Habitat is reliably producing premium, organic cannabis that ticks all of the boxes from a consumer perspective, without having to bring in any soil or chemicals.
“The sustainability side of it is obvious because you’re being less wasteful, but intrinsically, by being less wasteful, you’re able to ultimately cut costs, and that’s good business,” he says. “There are beneficial impacts on production, like increased yield and increased quality, so we have this two-pronged approach. For sustainability to stick and become mainstream, it needs to be sustainable from an economic standpoint as well, and that’s been our focus.”
Sustainability Resonates With Cannabis Consumers
Habitat’s cannabis brand, Cake & Caviar, is popular among local consumers, not just for its focus on sustainability or its history (it originated in the illicit market), but also for its quality. Large producers may have flooded the legal market with low-quality, mass-produced cannabis, but more Canadian consumers are recognizing the value of good cannabis and the added effort required to produce it.
“In any new industry, it takes time to iron out the kinks and the wrong messaging, but the fact is, cannabis doesn’t lie,” says Kayla Mann, Habitat’s chief financial and revenue officer. “Quality matters, and it has taken some time for people to understand that.” While customers may initially come to the brand for its story, Mann says its Habitat’s reputation for quality that makes repeat customers.
Can Farmed Coho Salmon Compete With Wild Salmon On Quality? Retailers Say Yes
In addition to proving that good cannabis could be grown in a recirculating aquaponics system, Schiebel and the Habitat team had another mission: to show that farmed salmon could compete with wild salmon, both on sustainability and on quality.
“A big part of what our pilot operation sought to achieve was to be able to put high-quality salmon on people’s plates that tastes good, looks great, has great texture, competes directly against wild salmon, and could be a complete replacement for it,” he says.
After salmon at Habitat reach the end of their lifecycle, they are harvested and sold to local businesses, including white tablecloth establishments like the nearby Quaaout Lodge. Habitat’s salmon has been received well by chefs and guests alike. It’s also available at local grocery stores.
“On the retailer side, we’re working with a group that initially said they were never going to sell farmed salmon. It was an absolute,” recalls Schiebel. “They tried our products and they’ve since become our biggest fan and want to be the exclusive distributors of our salmon when we scale.”
In B.C., where 19 open-pen salmon farms were ordered to close in 2020 after a federal commission found that they increased risk to wild salmon stocks, in-land aquaculture could provide an alternative. “There’s a big problem of what to do with all the waste and wastewater that comes from these farms. The Habitat model provides a solution for that.”
Scaling Salmon Farm Presents New Opportunities
Schiebel notes that the demand for salmon is steadily increasing, with one industry report putting the compound annual growth rate of the global salmon market at 3.7 percent from 2021 to 2028. Currently, Habitat produces four metric tons of coho salmon annually, but scaling the operation could increase that output to 1,000 tons with the right investor.
“As much salmon as we produce, we can sell,” he says. “As we become more successful and get more support from customers, that’s driving an engine that is creating a product that is able to build a sustainable protein chain, which can ultimately take the pressure off of wild salmon runs.”
That could have wide-reaching impacts, especially now that Habitat has built a roadmap to sustainably integrating commercial aquaculture and hydroponics. “We can duplicate this and get the same results, with other plants, too,” he says.
“We want to prove the point that if we can grow cannabis, we could really grow anything.”