Affectionately dubbed the “cannabunker,” an unpretentious metal structure behind a heavy chain link fence and strong security, is home to the teaching lab for the commercial cannabis production program at Niagara College, the first of its kind in Canada.
The one-year program launched in September, and graduation ceremonies for the first group of students will take place in late June, but all of those students are already far from the cannabunker, following their new career paths.
According to Niagara College Prof. Sebastien Jacob, “Many ended up working where they did their co-op placements, but there is so much demand they have the choice of where to go.” Every one of the students has a job.
One of them is Kaitlynn Anderson, one of the 24 students accepted out of the 300 applicants for the first cohort of the program. Her first degree was in agricultural economics from the University of Guelph.
“I grew up on a beef farm, and never did I think I would end up in cannabis, but I’m so glad I have,” Anderson says.
She is passionate about agriculture and hopes to “bridge the gap. There’s still a stigma about marijuana and I’d like to be part of getting rid of that in agriculture.”
Anderson is enthusiastic about the Niagara College program, saying, “it was very hands-on, so we could apply what we learned in the classroom the very same day with the plants.” She is quick to add, “I was glad the instructors were so experienced, I learned so much from them.”
Anderson has just been offered a position as a master grower at a micro cultivator, and she says she is thrilled about that. Micro cultivators in the cannabis world are akin to craft breweries in the world of beer.
As a master grower, Anderson will be responsible for “working with the plants every step along the way, keeping them healthy from start to finish, covering feeding, pests, harvest and more.”
Back at the cannabunker, the second cohort of students, who started in January, is more than halfway through their program and they have great expectations for their own futures when they graduate in August.
They say it’s exciting to be at the forefront of an emerging industry and they clearly have a passion for being in the vanguard.
“This is all new and it’s the first explosion of an industry since the tech sector,” notes Josh Weiss. He adds there are many different types of opportunities, not simply growing the plants, for example, “specializing in extraction of oils, research, integrated pest management (IPM), quality assurance, or business ventures.”
Jacob says the cannabis program “was developed in partnership with the industry and we continue to seek feedback from the industry and the students as the program evolves. One key aspect of the program is its hands-on approach.
“For every one hour in the classroom there are two hours hands-on with the plants,” Jacob says. “Industry wanted graduates who can touch the crop,” and the students say they learn better that way.
One of those industry partners is CannTrust, a licensed producer in Pelham.
CannTrust’s director of cultivation, Nick Phelan, a graduate of the Niagara College horticultural technician program, says it’s “been a privilege to help the cannabis program get going. We worked hand in hand with college staff to develop the curriculum.”
The co-op segment was designed to be well-rounded for the students, so they experience all stages of growth, including propagation, flowering, harvest, drying, and integrated pest management, he says.
Four students from the first cohort chose to do their co-ops at CannTrust, and Phelan says he was “super happy with them.” Two students from that first group of 24 have been hired full-time, one as a plant technician, one as part of the integrated pest management team.
Phelan says the students he sees from the program are “educated, passionate people. They are the whole package. This is where they want to be and they are very inquisitive and want to learn more all the time.”
CannTrust is in expansion mode,and Phelan says, “there are amazing opportunities in all different areas of production.”
As for the future of the program, Niagara College is considering some potential changes, for example in the co-op program.
Currently students attend their placements one day a week for 10 weeks, but Jacob says they’re considering “changing it to being two or three weeks full-time near the end of the term, so students can get immersed in the process.”
Niagara College communications consultant Andrew Korchok adds that expansion is on the agenda and while plans have not yet been finalized, “the college intends to build upon its leadership role in Canada’s emerging cannabis industry, both by growing our capacity to provide skilled workers to fill workforce demands through our commercial cannabis production program, and by expanding our capacity to conduct applied research activities.”