Passion on the Prairie: Growing in the New Grasslands

Who would have guessed that Alberta would lead the market for legal cannabis? With the highest recreational sales in the country, this prairie province is the epicentre of the “green” revolution. Take a peek behind the scenes of the quiet farm town where Sundial is pioneering the new economy of the Canadian grasslands.

In a small prairie city known for cattle, canola and an agricultural college, Canadian cannabis is leafing out. Sundial’s flagship facility opened in Olds, Alberta, in 2018 and is one of the town’s largest employers, with approximately 700 employees.

The Olds facility features just under 500,000 square feet of space for growing and processing cannabis plants. Each room was custom engineered to produce exceptionally flavourful cultivars while minimizing threats from mould, bugs or other intrusions that could damage a crop. Every detail of the construction—from the ultra-hygienic, non-porous and seamless walls to the high-tech and fully isolated growing rooms—helps the cultivation teams control the conditions (like temperature, humidity and nutrient mix) and customize them for each strain to maximize its unique yield of terpenes. As you can imagine, operating a system like this is not a simple task. 

Sundial’s production requires a plethora of skills. To execute its “craft-at-scale” approach, Sundial recruits the brightest minds in cannabis horticulture and consumer packaged goods. Together, these experts lead the teams that manage sanitation, pest management, cultivation and processing so the company can produce great weed that is compliant with Health Canada’s strict regulations.

A day in the life of a Sundial grower is governed by standard operating procedures (SOPs). Common to food and pharmaceutical industries, SOPs are step by step instructions on how to perform most tasks and are intended to ensure products are of consistent quality and free from contaminants. These SOPs dictate not only actions, but also behaviours. For staff, this means a lot of focus on hygiene. Hairnets, nitrile gloves, cleaned Crocs and full-body paper coveralls make up the uniform of the psychedelic farmers. There is also an abundance of paperwork. Health Canada’s Good Production Practices (GPP) requires extensive documentation of every step in the cannabis life cycle to make sure each lot is handled safely, drive consistency between batches, and to ensure any issues can be traced and resolved as quickly as possible. It’s a lot of work for growers, but an important safeguard for public health. The regulator also requires annual and random audits for GPP compliance. In addition to requiring licensed producers to obtain third-party testing of every batch, Health Canada also performs random checks on finished products for things like pesticides, which are strictly verboten.

The magic of turning seed to weed happens in nearly 100 grow rooms and is performed by an army of growers, team leads and master growers. Their working relationships are as intimate as any submarine crew, navigating close quarters, tight deadlines and a coordinated response to challenges. 

The best team leaders are infectiously passionate about the plant, and they garner trust and deep respect from their teams by working side-by-side with them. They encourage lots of questions and help curious newbies dive deep into the cultivation processes. Some of Sundial’s master growers, like Gregg Wigeland, are renowned in the industry for their artistry and expertise. Other beloved mentors at the facility include Directors of Cultivation Rob Rosario and Chris Di Pinto, and Director of Integrated Crop Management, Laura Doell. Doell’s fascinating biocontrol system, which she developed exclusively for Sundial, uses ladybug larvae, parasitoid wasps and praying mantids among other non-toxic means to control pests without the need for pesticides.

New growers can be hired from almost any background but need to show excellent collaboration skills, as well as be super adaptable and able to learn on the fly. Some recruits arrive from nearby Olds College, which runs a Cannabis Production Program. Students there learn about the basics of cannabis horticulture as well as Health Canada regulations and take part in a field study at Sundial or nearby Terra Life Sciences.

Sundial growers get to see, smell and touch beautiful plants all day long and know that their hard work produces safe and high-quality products for cannabis lovers all across Canada. It’s not an easy job, but it’s fascinating and done with great love.