Stewart Farms is bringing vertical farming to St. Stephen

Submitted photo An engineering rendering showing the aquaponics facility that Stewart Farms is building in St. Stephen. Construction on the facility is set to begin this month.

St. Stephen – Stewart Farms is set to begin construction on a 100,000 square foot vertical aquaponics facility in St. Stephen.

The facility, located on 29 acres within the St. Stephen industrial park, will be used to grow medical cannabis for Canadian and international markets.

Aquaponics is a portmanteau of aquaculture and hydroponics, and according to company founder Tanner Stewart, uses land based fish farming together with indoor plant farming to produce both organically farmed fish and cannabis with minimal water loss.

“The whole philosophy is that you’re taking the nutrient rich water from the fish farm, providing that water to your plants, and after the plants extract the nutrients out of the water, you send that water back into the fish farm,” said Stewart.

“So it’s a semi-closed loop system, because you still have to feed the fish, but the nutrients that the plants are taking up come from the fish, and the only water loss in the system is in the water content of the plants after harvesting.”

Stewart, originally from Miramichi, moved to Alberta in 2006 to start a construction business. He first got involved with vertical farming in 2013, when he was approached by a company called Nutraponics Canada who were looking for investors. Nutraponics Canada operates an aquaponics facility in Edmonton which produces leafy greens using the same sort of technology going into the St. Stephen facility.

Stewart was impressed with the company and quickly invested. He was soon named as CEO of Nutraponics Canada, but his sights have always been back on the east coast.

He bought the facility at 30 Progress Drive in St. Stephen in 2015, and said, “I’ve been planning to renovate that building since I bought it, and originally I was planning to build a large scale leafy green farm, like I was doing with Nutraponics.”

However, with the construction industry in Alberta facing significant problems, the plans for the facility in St. Stephen were put on hold.

With the changing regulatory environment regarding cannabis producers in Canada, along with growing investor interest in the industry, the pause could be considered a silver lining of the tough economic situation in the oil fields of Alberta. It gave Stewart time to pivot from leafy greens to cannabis.

“It was coming into the beginning of 2018, and I was looking around at the cannabis industry as a whole, and I realized that there is a massive lack of commitment within the current licensed producers to produce medical grade cannabis organically, along the same principals that we built into Nutraponics.

“So while I was at my house in New Brunswick, I realized that I wanted to breathe life back into the St. Stephen project and build a phenomenally functional vertical aquaponics farm, and I decided then to pivot the crop into cannabis.”

This commitment to the organic production of medical grade cannabis is what Stewart believes will set the company apart in the quickly expanding industry, saying that “fundamentally, we are building a health and wellness company. That is our focus.”

Though the main role of the St. Stephen facility will be the production of that medical grade cannabis, Stewart notes many patients don’t necessarily want to smoke dried cannabis, so Stewart Farms is currently forming joint venture partnerships with a number of manufacturers in order to create branded products that align with what consumers want.

The intention of Stewart Farms is to not only be a cannabis producer, but to approach that production and product design in a holistic way that responds to the needs of the patients it serves and helps them to achieve their goal of improving their lives.

“People don’t have goals to take drugs, cannabis included,” said Stewart.

“They have goals to sleep better, and lower their anxiety, they have goals to fight depression or battle dementia. We want to be a resource to help patients achieve those goals.”

Stewart Farms is starting renovations in the building this month, with the intention of having phase one completed in the summer.

“It’s a very small phase one,” said Stewart. “We’re renovating a 7000 sq ft section of our existing building, and we’re dropping some custom built trailers for the offices and the lunch rooms.”

Stewart Farms is intentionally building the smallest phase one possible so that they can get it completed quickly, as a first step in getting a growing license from Health Canada.

The company has broken the whole project into four construction phases within the building, to be completed over the next 36 months.

After completion of phase four, Stewart expects to have approximately 100 direct, local, employees once the business is running at full scale.

“My plan is to bring people along on this journey as we’re building this,” said Stewart. “I think for a lot of people in Canada, the cannabis industry is a bit of a black box, so we’re going to be fairly transparent with the way that we are building this business.

“I’m a big believer in this industries value proposition for New Brunswick, and in my case I’m doing fish farming and plant farming, which are both things that New Brunswickers know a lot about. I couldn’t be building in a better spot.”

You can follow Stewart’s journey as he builds out his business by following the social media links on www.stewartfarms.life

andrewsutton@stcroixcourier.ca