Cannabis nurseries are the secret pheno-hunting, seed-slinging, unsung genetics heroes of the cannabis industry.
A growing number of cannabis nurseries—also called “breeders”—are emerging to supply seeds and clones for the commercial and homegrow markets in Canada.
There are more than 600 cannabis cultivators federally licensed in Canada, and only 21 fall into the category of cannabis nurseries. Despite their small number, a great deal of genetics from licenced producers come from these tiny-but-mighty nurseries.
What is a cannabis nursery?
Most nurseries are focused primarily on supplying starting genetics for other commercial growers—usually, clones, although sometimes tissue culture samples, and growing numbers are selling seeds directly for retail.
Cannabis cultivation licences in Canada are separated into three different categories: micro cultivators with a canopy limit of 200 m2, standard cultivators with no canopy limit, and cannabis nurseries.
Cannabis nurseries have no size limit for non-flowering cannabis plants—like clones, mothers, or tissue culture—but have a 50 m2 canopy limit for flowering material for seed production.
Unlike cultivation licences, nurseries can only grow flower for seeds and must destroy flower after seeds are harvested.
Although about two-thirds of the currently licensed nurseries are in British Columbia, a handful exist in other provinces as well. Alberta is home to three, Ontario two, and Saskatchewan, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick each have one.
Clones, tissue culture, and seeds—oh my!
Nurseries like Progeny Bio (selling under the Erbaceous brand), Weathered Islands Craft Cannabis, and NRC Cannabis (selling under the Jax brand) have seeds for sale in provinces like British Columbia, Ontario, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia.
Other nurseries like Segra, Mother Labs, Klonetics, Greenway, and many more, focus on supplying clones and tissue cultures to commercial growers.
This gives commercial growers a source of new and unique genetics, as well as a way to more efficiently use canopy space for flowering, especially for micro cultivators, rather than using space for in-house clone production and vegging.
So-called pre-flower clones have become a standard for many growers, who buy starting plants from nurseries or other cultivators that can be quickly flipped over to flowering in an indoor setting.
Tissue cultures and ‘clean’ cannabis
Tissue culture is the culture of plant cells (tissues or organs) packaged in a sterile and environmentally controlled vessel. The right tissue culture is the foundation for growers to get healthy, disease and pest-free clones that have consistent growth characteristics and phenotypes.
One nursery offering these tissue culture services is Klonetics, a newly licensed nursery in British Columbia. First, they pheno-hunt, or select the best version of a strain, then they create tissue culture samples for sale to commercial growers.
“We focus on what we call ‘ready-to-flower’ plants, which would be a 12-inch plant which enables the licensed producer to claw back their actual mother, clone and veg space and turn that all into flowering space,” says David Brough, CEO of Klonetics. “It increases yield and also makes it much more efficient.”
“We start all our ready-to-flower plants from tissue culture,” he said. “[That way] every single plant is guaranteed to be mildew-free, mould-free, and we have a full-time Ph.D. virologist on staff who is removing any viruses.”
Clean cannabis is pest and virus free
In addition to commercial sales, cannabis nurseries also offer tissue culture services that can store a producer’s genetics as well as “clean” them of many potential diseases or other impurities. One such nursery, British Columbia’s ProgynyBio, provides this service.
“We encourage the industry to test for viruses and maintain clean plant material in tissue culture systems, much like our Certified Stock,” explains Geoff White, the CEO and Founder of ProgenyBio and CanGenX BioTech Inc.
“We offer molecular virus/viroid analysis, plant material sanitation, maintenance and storage, along with low-mid volume propagation services to licenced cultivators. We do not use PGRs [plant growth regulators] or antibiotics in our tissue culture system to maintain compliance with Health Canada standards.”
Seed sales and exclusive genetics
Since growing your own cannabis is legal right now in most provinces in Canada, the supply of legal starting material should be better supported.
A basic Google search will result in pages of illicit cannabis seed suppliers with very little done by the authorities to shut down this aspect of the illicit market. Seeds, in addition to tissue cultures and clones, offer cannabis nurseries a chance to distinguish themselves from their competitors.
Klonetics is doing just that, says Brough, through their licensing deals with several breeders and seed producers around the world.
Not satisfied to work with whatever genetics they can get their hands on, Brough says they actively work with breeders to ensure the genetics they are selling are what they claim to be一and that the sales are approved of by those who developed the strains.
“We went out, around the world, and signed exclusive licensing deals with some of the biggest seed companies in the industry,” he says. “So we have the licensing right for their names, their brands, their cultivars. We have eleven of the biggest names in the seed and cultivar business in the industry.”
Seed sales are good for small businesses
A handful of cultivators are offering seeds on the retail market instead of for commercial grows. This allows consumers to access quality genetics and grow their own legally sourced cannabis. It is also an easy entry point for small businesses hustling to break into the biz.
Micro cultivators like ANC (selling seeds as 34 Street) and Parkland Flower, both in Alberta, have found a niche market in focusing on seed production rather than flower production, with seeds in several provinces and territories like Alberta, Ontario, British Columbia, New Brunswick, Yukon, and others.
For Kieley Beaudry of Parkland Flower, seed production is a good way to enter the market immediately rather than compete in a more complicated flower market.
While cannabis products like flower, edibles, beverages, extracts, and topicals have to be packaged by a processor, anyone with a cultivation licence is able to sell seeds and clones into the provincially managed retail channels, pending provincial approval.
Although the flower market can be very competitive and sometimes difficult for smaller growers to navigate, she says seeds provide a good entry point for a small business like hers.
“It’s a good way to get your feet wet as a grower, with a low-risk product,” explains Beaudry. “It’s getting into each distribution channel and figuring it out, before putting other products on the market.”
Beaudry says she has also been successful in working with some provinces to lower their insurance requirements for seeds sellers, helping small growers like Parkland Farms to be able to use this product category as an entry into an otherwise complex and costly provincial supply chain.
Is there consumer demand for seeds in retail markets?
Seed sales still represent a very small portion of the overall cannabis market, many nurseries are still finding success supplying at least a few varieties in nearly every province. Consumers curious to grow their own weed at home might consider starting with seeds. The exception being Manitoba and Quebec as both provinces have a ban on growing cannabis at home.
“We thought it was really important for us to have products in the seed category to connect with our consumers, but also to connect with those who want to grow and try their hand at it,” says Mandesh Dosanjh, president & CEO at Pure Sunfarms Corporation.
“But ultimately, it all starts with consumer demand. We see varying levels of interest depending on the province.”
“Seeds are such a small percentage of the overall sales across the country, it’s less than 1% annually, but we’ve found support from many of the provincial boards and we’ll keep supplying them as demand grows.”
“It’s not going to be a huge part of the industry, but I’m happy it exists and we’re happy to be a part of it.”