The Key to a Successful Craft Cannabis Industry with Rod Wilson (Episode Recap and Transcript)

In the second episode of the East Coast Cannabis Hour podcast, I am talking to Rod Wilson. Rod is the Founder of Hidden Harvest Inc. and the Executive Director of The New Brunswick Craft Cannabis Association.

Rod Wilson CBC
Rod Wilson. Source: CBC

We discuss how he came to create Hidden Harvest and the pivoting that he felt necessary to capitalize on the developing and quickly evolving sector. Go where the puck is going to be! For those that aren’t familiar with cannabis and how it creates jobs, this is an excellent episode to listen to.

I enjoyed meeting some of the members at the Association’s annual meeting back in February 2020 at the Hidden Harvest Facility. If I had to pick the last event to participate in person before a pandemic, it would be in my top two. Rob had the Canadian Revenue Agency come in for an information session to help members understand their business responsibilities regarding taxes and permits. I was impressed with the cross-section in the age group and background of the members and sharing experiences. I think the presenters learned a lot as well.

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Here is what I want people to get out of this podcast. Like Rod, entrepreneurs in this space are serious, calculating, passionate people. They take a lot of personal financial risk to build their businesses; something often missed by the general public. Our perception of cannabis skews to what we have learned from a long time ago, and the messaging hasn’t changed that much, as Andrew Byrne and I discussed in our first podcast. Not in my back yard!

We need to change the narrative to one that is more balanced. The more we hear from entrepreneurs in the thick of it overcoming challenges and facing new ones, the more we realize we need to support these companies.

The whitepaper is now live below. Go over it, comment on it, and help us move the needle for this sector.

Don’t feel like listening to the podcast episode? Read the full episode transcript below.

Brennan Sisk: Today, we have Rod Wilson with us. Rod is the owner of a cannabis nursery here in New Brunswick. He’s the Craft Cannabis Association executive director and is an author of a yet-to-be-published a white paper on how cannabis policy can fast-track job growth. Rod, thanks for agreeing to be thrown under the bus of sorts.

I appreciate you taking the time to talk to us and everybody in our network. Would you mind just giving me your background? 

Rod Wilson: Sure, Brennan, thank you very much for inviting me to the podcast. It’s a crucial time for the cannabis opportunity in New Brunswick, and I’m just thrilled to have this opportunity. And also want to thank you for the work you’ve been doing within the New Brunswick cannabis industry community to reach the potential for new Brunswick that the opportunity provides.

I was away from New Brunswick for about 25, 30 years in the pharmaceutical industry. And then, I founded a company called Cameron Stewart Life Sciences and ran that for ten years. During that time, one of my assignments in the 2013-2014 timeframe was working one year with a new cannabis medical company called Bedrocan and helping the senior management enter the Canadian market.

And really, that’s where I got the bug for the cannabis industry. I had been in other mature industries, and I always cherish the idea of getting in at the ground floor of an industry and really having a hand in shaping the industry and trying to get it off the ground.

So I retired five years ago and returned back to New Brunswick. I’m a born and bred New Brunswicker, and UNB grad always held a special place in my heart for New Brunswick. And, upon retiring, came back here and got interested in cannabis. Growing my time in Ontario, working with Bedrocan, and on that assignment, I had some interactions with the BC Craft Cannabis Association. So I thought, naturally, I would first call the New Brunswick Craft Cannabis Association and see what the landscape was like for cannabis in New Brunswick. And I quickly learned that there was no landscape for cannabis in New Brunswick.

There were the big LPs, the Organigram and Zenabis, but there were no small or medium-sized businesses licensed at that time. No micro class of licenses. So then I thought: if there is no New Brunswick craft cannabis association, there darn should be. And that’s when I started that initiative and was very lucky to get networked. That’s what it was initially: to create a network hub for people with similar interests in New Brunswick and to move the craft cannabis industry forward for small and medium-sized businesses.

So when we started this over two years ago, there were zero licenses in New Brunswick. 

Now we’re up to 13 licenses in New Brunswick, and the four of those are the micro class, either cultivation or processing. And six of those are what I consider the non publicly traded LPs. There are smaller LP who are looking to play more in the craft segment of the market. So very pleased with that.

We’ve come a long way in just a couple of years. And we had our first micro I license to Tamara Follett, who was very instrumental in getting our licenses in New Brunswick going.

Brennan Sisk: Yeah, no, it’s true. And I’m glad we covered your background and your pharmaceutical background and how you came back to New Brunswick because I think one of the industry’s challenges is the stigma and stereotype of cannabis and what people look like who work in the cannabis space.

And you’re a professional. With legalization, it’s allowed a lot of businesspeople to enter into the space for very valid reasons. And I think in the general public, it’s just a different image that we have, and the more we can expose what the cannabis sector is, I think the better. 

Can you run through your thought process of why you started with one and then you pivoted to what you’re doing now, which is a nursery.

It’s important: the decision-making process you went through.

Rod Wilson: Brendan, it’s essential to have a plan and a direction. But you don’t want to be so tied to it that it puts you blinders on you. And, when you just start looking for things that validate or support what your initial plan or your initial feelings are, and with the cannabis opportunity, given that it was such a new opportunity, there wasn’t a lot known about it: the customer segmentation, the size of the market.

There were a lot of unknowns. I felt it was vital that I had a plan and direction. My initial direction was to get into micro-cultivation, and that was something I looked at. But as I said, you can’t be wedded to, or chained to, an initial plan because the environment can change around you.

You can uncover new information that points you in a different direction. So, long story short, as I was working through the process and looking at micro cultivation, I thought there was an untapped opportunity in the nursery space and genetics. I also felt it benefited from being slightly less onerous than the licensing process with Health Canada because you’re not typically dealing with dried flower. We’re dealing with plant starter material like seeds and clones. 

And I also felt that there was a need in the marketplace for the introduction of new genetics.

I’m a firm believer that the cannabis consumer is not right now at this stage, very brand loyal like they might be with alcohol or tobacco. They’re still at the investigation and exploring stage, and they want to try as many new, different experiences as they can. So, there’s going to be a need for nurseries. And there’s 12 in Canada now.

Hidden Harvest, which is the nursery I run, was the first nursery licensed east of Saskatchewan. There’s one in Nova Scotia now, New Brunswick, BC has seven alone of the 12. 

Brennan Sisk: They really saw the opportunity.

Rod Wilson: Yes. And that’s where it started, and they have a lovely climate out there, and all the other types of things are conducive to cannabis.

The nursery space was what I pursued, and, to be honest with you, it’s very early stages. I was licensed at the end of March. So that was right at the beginning of the pandemic. And that threw a few curve balls into trying to get up and running, but I’ve been very pleased, and I haven’t gone out with a lot of promotion, but I’m getting a lot of calls. And we’re fine finding some good micro-customers that we’re supplying. So we’re thrilled with the early results. 

And I think it’s now time, in 2021 next year, the Cannabis Act is coming up for review. We’ve just had an election in New Brunswick, and we now have a majority of government. And they have some firm ideas, well they seem to have some firm ideas, on the distribution of cannabis in New Brunswick. 

And I think it’s essential that the industry, along with academia and research, provide input to the government policy and stakeholders so that New Brunswick is competitive going forward. But also so that we can use the cannabis opportunity as a jump-off point to start creating the jobs that are going to be necessary post-pandemic here in New Brunswick.

You can get an excellent rebounding, get us going in the right direction. And we’re already seeing other provinces like British Columbia and Ontario being very progressive with cannabis policy. And especially in distribution, looking at farm gate sales for small producers, looking at home delivery and other types of things like that.

Brennan Sisk:  Yeah. And it’s reading the tea leaves or reading in between the lines of your recap in decision making. One of the things that I’ve seen is the process that a company has to go through even before they can apply for a license, especially on the medicinal and recreational side; there’s a lot.

When you talk about timing, that all factors in because your initial idea with the market conditions could be spot on, but by the time it takes to get through the process, we currently have things change, and things shift. And I think, correct me if I’m wrong, but that was one of the things that was a factor in how you pivoted.

Rod Wilson: Yeah. In the early stages of an industry like cannabis, my philosophy is that you have to be very nimble and because things will change lightning fast, and you’re going to have to be able to zig and zag as they change. And I think that was one of the issues early on with the first entrance into the market was these large licensed producers, well-capitalized from the markets.

And they were building an industry based on what they felt were the external environmental parameters, and that quickly changed. And I don’t think that they were agile enough to switch their direction. They had invested incredible amounts of money in developing cultivation.

You know: a million square foot cultivation areas or whatnot. It was funny because I asked everybody that I meet from these large LPs; I’m trying to tell them to get out of cultivation. Maxwell House Coffee probably doesn’t own any coffee fields. There are tens of thousands of coffee cultivators in South America.

Tens, if not hundreds of thousands, of small farmers providing coffee beans to the coffee industry and why we thought that cannabis would be any different; and it’s quickly changed. And, it is business after all, and business is not an easy game. So I think that you’re going to see the survivors in the cannabis industry are those right now that have strong balance sheets. They will be able to weather more changes to the marketplace, such as fluctuation of prices, hurricanes, those types of things because there are a lot of outdoor cultivators in New Brunswick. So we’re susceptible to those types of vagrancy, some of the weather.

Brennan Sisk: Yeah. A lot of challenges, but a lot of opportunities. There are different industries that we can draw experience from in terms of how this develops. 

So I want to switch gears into the Craft Cannabis Association that you created. I had the pleasure of being invited to one of your meetings. I think it was in February, a couple of weeks before the shutdowns. But what struck me was the diversity of your members. There were people from 19 years old to 90—a real spirit of cooperation and a lot of sharing of issues. You had the CRA in to talk about some of those issues.

And I just thought it was great. There was a real camaraderie there. You got here, and you noticed that there wasn’t any association, but it’s interesting how quickly it took off or how quickly you found kindred spirits, I’ll say.

Rod Wilson: Yeah, actually, it all started with a Kijiji ad. I just thought there must be other people in New Brunswick interested in a craft cannabis association or are interested in getting their license. I put a simple ad on Kijiji, and I got a tremendous amount of response. A lot of them wondering whether I had anything to sell to them.

I did manage to hook up with a few key people that then networked me into Tamara Follett’s group. And at that time, she had a Facebook page called Atlantic Canada Micro Cultivation. And that’s where I got introduced to several people who were pursuing their license. They were running into different obstacles, and people like Tamara were providing advice to help them get through.

And that was the thing that I also genuinely enjoy about the cannabis industry. In previous industries I’ve worked in, people held their cards very close to their chest and their tricks and secrets that they had. They felt that it was a competitive advantage, and they weren’t willing to share them. In cannabis, I’m finding it’s the total opposite. There’s this willingness to give a hand up to other people because we know that no one cannabis entity will be successful on its own, that we have to create a cannabis industry. 

With a rising tide, that’s going to lift all boats, and that’s been evident. Now, the pandemic has thrown a wrench into our association meetings. We’re still chatting on the phone and whatnot, and we were looking to plan for a meeting post-harvest this year, but with the recent outbreaks in New Brunswick and whatnot, we’re going to have to put that on hold.

As I mentioned, the Association started as this hub for networking where like-minded people came together and shared information to move the whole industry in New Brunswick forward.

And I think we’re still in that phase now. We now have 13 licenses in New Brunswick; Nova Scotia has 21. 43 in all of Atlanta Canada; so Nova Scotia almost has half of the total licenses in Atlantic Canada, but we want New Brunswick to move forward.

And I’m aware of a number of other licensees that Health Canada puts out that Friday afternoon, all the new licensees for that week. And it’s a bit of a celebration in our community. We’re all watching to see if the people are getting their licenses.

And so that’s the way to do it. But the Association will eventually morph as we mature beyond networking and licensing, which was the focus now. And now we’re moving into: “okay, let’s have a look at our external environment and what’s holding us back.”? Because I’m a firm believer, and that’s the first thing you do.

You don’t push harder on a locked door to open it. You open the lock, and then you walk through. And so there’s no point in pushing against obstacles. The idea is to remove those obstacles, especially if they’re obstacles put in the way by ourselves.

Climate is an obstacle for growing cannabis in Canada; there is a reason we send hockey players to Florida, and they send us orange juice. Okay. There’s not much we can do about that. We can try to develop strains for our particular climate, we can cultivate indoors, but that’s not an obstacle that we have full control over.

Now government policies and regulations that may be hamstringing the industry: those are obstacles within our capability to have removed.

I tell the government folks who will listen to me that we’re not looking for a hand out here. We’re just looking for a hand up and listening to some of the proposals that we’re putting forward and giving those proposals due consideration—and looking into them in a little more.

I’m trying to dig into the facts and data and have that data drive our cannabis policy going forward, not the stigma and some other things that might be holding us back.

Now, I’ll give you a couple of instances: banking and insurance are real obstacles to our industry. Because of the stigma, it’s very challenging for small cannabis businesses to obtain a business banking account. I joke it took me almost as long to get my business account as it did to get my Health Canada cultivation license for the nursery. Insurance companies are the same way. We’re hearing the horror stories of people who have started cannabis businesses being cut off by their insurance company for their personal insurance: things like their home and their car and whatnot.

So that’s something that we have to address, and the way we will address that is by educating people. And, and I think that the first couple of years of legalization, the sky has not fallen as far as I’m aware. 

The black or legacy market is still thriving, so I think there are some policies that we can look at to move more of the industry to the legal side. But at the same time, balancing public safety and making sure that legally cultivated cannabis is not finding its way, diverted into the black market still. 

We’re pretty strong believers that there are some things that we can do that will both help the cannabis industry grow in New Brunswick while at the same time maintaining the goals of the government as far as public safety and diversion. 

Brennan Sisk: In the year that I’ve been immersed in this, one of the soapboxes that I step onto is: the reasons for legalization were public safety, health, and safety tackling the illicit market and harm reduction, and economics and economic development. Although no, not completely ignored because there were mechanisms put into place to have sales transactions (and we can debate how inefficient they are).

If you don’t have a healthy economy around it, you’re not tackling your public health, and you’re certainly not tackling the illicit market. And so I think the next phase is to put economic development closer to the front. That will make public health and safety and tackling the illicit market model robust. That’s what I believe. 

And on the cannabis coordinator side, that is a focus to establish a platform where the Craft Cannabis Association can plug into and work together academically. What I mean by that is a method in which we acquire data, conclusions, analyze in a particular way. And I think that’s one way academia can help industry sort of speed things up. It’s a noninvasive way of, or, the most benign way, to approaching policy.

It might be a good segue about the white paper because you laid out many good points in there it’s yet to be published.

 One of the things I thought was interesting that you pointed out is that cannabis is an exciting sector because, more so that I find that in other industries, it encompasses economics (economic development), but right on the heels of that is societal issues. And so I just thought that the white paper, you get into that a little bit: that the issue is socioeconomic.

Can you just maybe talk to you a little bit about your motivation to write the white paper and sort of your observations. You’ve laid out a SWOT analysis, which was great so, if you would mind just talking about that a little bit.

Rod Wilson: Sure. The white paper evolved over the last number of years and listening to cultivators. The focus is on small and medium sized businesses because that’s where the jobs will be created in this industry in New Brunswick. After being immersed in the industry and regulations for two years, it became apparent where some of the rate-limiting factors and obstacles were that were holding back the cannabis industry from living up to its true potential. It’s one thing to talk about it, but it’s another thing to put the ideas down on paper and have some facts and data backing up those ideas.

And, you talked about the socioeconomic thing. One of the first-ever cannabis events I went to in New Brunswick was in Moncton, and it was put on by one of the consultants, and it was very early on. It was just saying, “Hey, if you’re interested in potentially getting one of these new micro class licenses, come to this meeting.”

I went to the meeting, and there were probably 75 to a hundred people attending. And I looked around the room, and I counted, I think no more than three women. It was very male-dominated. And I thought, “this is not going to be a good start for the cannabis industry if it’s going to exclude 50% of the population right from the start”. I was pleased when I met, like you said, Tamara and Denise Hannay up in Rexton.

And so there are a lot of women that are now getting interested in the industry. And I think that’s going to be just a plus for the industry because there would be nothing worse to continue this stigma than having a male testosterone dominated industry that came from the black market, and all that stuff.

We just had one of our licensees in New Brunswick audited by Health Canada. It’s an outdoor grow operation, and Health Canada would like this individual to rake up all of the cannabis leaves that have fallen onto the ground, collect them up, weigh them, record them, and then destroy it. I understand the mentality of that, where it’s coming from. But when you look at the common sense of it: raking up dry, dead cannabis leaves on the ground, which have no potential to be diverted into the black market or used for illicit purposes.

But there’s a cost of doing that. There’s a time, and time is money to the businesses. And an outdoor grower with most crops as leaves fall off; they just let that become the compost for the next season. So that’s a minor nitpick example, but that’s the framework stone times of the bureaucracy.

If we let this be a lopsided policy where everything is for bureaucratic purposes, and we skip academia and R&D in the industry, we’ve got a three legged stool that falls over every time. So we need to align the stakeholders like the government policymakers, the industry players, and other interested academia.

And I also want to mention now that I’m on academia, Brennan, to let you know that we are involved, Hidden Harvest Nursery, with the New Brunswick Community College. They did get their R&D license up in grand falls and we’re supplying them with clones for some of their R & D.

So that’s going to be a significant segment of the industry as we move forward because either we’ll innovate in cannabis or we won’t be in cannabis. It’s the innovator guy thing.

Brennan Sisk: Yup. I couldn’t agree with you more. One thing that academia offers is a standardized way of data collection. And when it comes to policy to look at, for example, an organization that you were just talking to: how much sense does it make to rake up the dead leaves?

But to identify that as a problem and put a cost to it: it would be interesting to have that academic exercise to walk through that. Does it make sense? We all know scientifically that there’s nothing in the dead leaves, so why put that onto the company? But having that documented puts regulators and policymakers at ease.

One of the downsides is that it takes time to implement. And to your point, the importance of aligning industry and academia and government in a think tank, in a bubble, to start conversations is essential. And some things are easy things to take away in terms of regulation to make things better for the industry.

And it’s just a matter of having those conversations. I know that’s something that I’m working fairly hard on: to create that platform where you and your colleagues as a group can sit down around the table with academics and government officials and say, “this doesn’t make any sense, or these are the opportunities we see.”

And these are the changes that we need to make. And New Brunswick being the size that we are, 750,000 people, and we have the resources of a small country. No joke. That we can remain and continue and push to be a leader in the cannabis sector. Not only in Canada, but as other jurisdictions open up. That’s an opportunity as well, best practices.

 Yes. The details of the white paper. Because I think it’s an excellent read. It’s written so that a typical person not knowing a lot about it can understand, which is fantastic. And it lays out some of the easy pain points that we can work on to make this industry better here in New Brunswick and Canada.

I did want to touch on your SWOT analysis and in particular, the weaknesses and the threats. One of the things you identified as a threat is the stigma, and then how we zone things and other jurisdictions potentially moving faster. And I think you mentioned BC is chugging along in their way.

Do you think there’s an opportunity to learn from one another in terms of New Brunswick and British Columbia, and other provinces, and how would you see that working?

Rod Wilson: As I mentioned earlier, the cannabis community is more prone to openness and sharing than any other industry I’ve ever been involved in. There is a movement right now to unify across Canada associations, like the NB Craft Cannabis Association with the BC Craft Farmers and Alberta has a Micro Association that is very active in Alberta politics. And there is a movement now to make a Canadian link. 

Brennan Sisk: Yep.

Rod Wilson: And I think that’s just a matter of time when you’re talking about. And as I mentioned, and it’s already afoot, some people are looking to hook up the different associations, and “really none of us are as smart as all of us” is the way they’re going with this.

The Association for Craft Cannabis in New Brunswick is focusing on the industry. Still, the reason behind our focus on the industry is also a little larger than that. We think this is an opportunity to lift all of New Brunswick.

New Brunswickers need to understand that our economy in our province is directly related to our lifestyles. And if you like your lifestyle, and even if you want to improve your lifestyle, you do that by lifting the whole economy. And I think cannabis can do that. I don’t believe every industry can do that.

When I look at New Brunswick, we have a lot going for us. What we need to do is get the right plan and direction in place and remove the barriers, while at the same time watching the guide rails so that we don’t go off into affecting public safety or diversion into the black market and whatnot.

And I think this is not a complex issue that we have to work out like climate change or nuclear energy. This is business and opportunity and policy and innovation. If we can get this right in this industry, we can transfer it into other industries as they come along. This will help New Brunswick because that knowledge and expertise are really the value we’re creating here. 

That’s the value that the people like Tamara Follett, Denise Hannay, and Tom DeVos and all these entrepreneurs in New Brunswick. That can be contagious. New Brunswick is punching above its weight in the cannabis industry with the number of licenses we have approved and pending. And I would just like to see our government make a few small changes.

And the first change, Brennan, is what we’re doing right here. You got a government/academia guy talking to an industry policy and industry owner guy. And this is the first step. And we just have to make sure that the elected officials that have the final say on a lot of this policy are educated with what could be done and what the possibilities are in New Brunswick and embrace those possibilities and make some minor changes.

In the white paper, there’s a six point plan. One of them is to create a sort of body that is academia, government, industry to look into things like farm gates. Is that something that would benefit New Brunswick? What’s the best way to implement that to have the most significant and quickest impact on job creation.

Brennan Sisk: Yep.

Rod Wilson: And look at things like zoning.

Brennan Sisk:  We’re not quite aligning as quickly as I would have expected around this opportunity. 

Rod Wilson: And we have Opportunities New Brunswick in place. We have the New Brunswick Innovation Foundation play, so a lot of the infrastructure to do what we’re talking about here exists. We’re not talking about creating something from scratch. It’s more or less instilling a process or a way of thinking and analyzing these things so that the facts and data can drive our decision making and policy. We can capitalize on the full opportunity that something like cannabis would provide to New Brunswick.

Brennan Sisk: I think the craft cannabis association is going to play can play a vital role in the development of New Brunswick. And cannabis economy. 

Rod Wilson: Brennan, thank you very much for having me on today to talk about the cannabis industry in New Brunswick and the white paper that we’re just about to push out. And we do appreciate everything that you’re doing. You are in between the two worlds. Of government policymakers and the cannabis industry and academia, and I’m unsure, that’s rewarding at times and challenging at other times.

So we do appreciate your fortitude and keeping things going forward.

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