by Célio Fioretti

Célio Fioretti talks with Because You Cann founder Serena Donovan about how she went from growing canola to cannabis as a result of Canada’s legalisation of marijuana. 

Serena Donovan is a farmer, and on the property she runs with her husband Ian near Vulcan in rural Alberta, a new greenhouse has been in operation for almost a year. But this time it’s not the usual wheat, canola, and peas that are growing, but cannabis.

Serena has been suffering from migraines for years, and after being prescribed various treatments which proved ineffective, she decided to try cannabidiol, better known as CBD. When CBD greatly reduced the pain, Serena was convinced of the medicinal power of cannabis and started to think about growing her own plants.

Canada legalised the medical use of cannabis in 2016 and recreational use in 2018. The new legislation also asserted the right to grow cannabis at home for personal use. In contrast, to be able to sell cannabis, Canadian citizens must register for a license. Serena Donovan saw in the new law “a way to diversify the farm” and applied for the micro-cultivator license allowing her to grow cannabis on a field of a maximum two-hundred square metres. Using their own funds, Serena and her husband started renovating an old storage building, setting up all the facilities needed to grow cannabis and sell it while waiting for the license to be granted. A year later she received a positive response from Health Canada and her company, Because You Cann, was officially created while Serena became the second micro-cultivator licensed in Alberta. 

Because the micro-cultivator license does not allow to sell directly to pharmacies or clients, Serena had to partner up with a licensed seller, Delta-9, known for working with small producers. The Canadian cannabis market is largely dominated by big business. 50% of the market is owned by just four companies; Canopy Growth, Aurora, Aphria and CannTrust, with the rest of the market scattered across a multitude of smaller enterprises. Independent ones, like Serena’s company, are barely visible. “It’s quite challenging”, she explains concerning the competition in the market “There are fifteen hundred small producers in Canada and it’s hard to make room for everyone. But we do have something that they [the big companies] don’t, the uniqueness of our product”. Indeed, in her farm Serena grows organic cannabis, something bigger companies “don’t [have a] mind to”, she says. “People look for original products from small producers and because we have a smaller plot we can experiment [with] different types of plants through plant breeding” Serena explains. On her social media accounts, customers regularly post reviews of their favourite weed they bought from Serena. 

Growing cannabis is demanding, says Serena, “I need to take care of the temperature, humidity and insects more than I was used to with wheat or canola, a couple of mites can lead us to destroy the whole production”. To be able to sell her cannabis, it needs to be tested by the authorities to control both its quality and the THC level it contains. Working with her daughters Grace and Julia, Serena runs a family business but also hires people from the community, all of whom are women. “I am able to provide a farming job to women who wouldn’t have the opportunity here”, she says. Without being reluctant to employ men, she wants to empower women from the community as much as she can. In its first year, Because You Cann managed to be profitable, something rare in the cannabis business but possible thanks to Serena’s “knowledge and experience about running a farm”. Thinking about the future of her business, she wants to continue developing the cannabis branch and hopes to pass it on to her children.