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Niagara College set for first crop of students in cannabis production program

The one-year post-grad program will focus on regulations around the soon-to-be legal marijuana industry— and teach students how to grow a healthy crop.

An employee weighs and packages medical marijuana at Aurora Cannabis' production facility in Cremona, Alberta.

Elizabeth Cameron / Metro Order this photo

An employee weighs and packages medical marijuana at Aurora Cannabis' production facility in Cremona, Alberta.

It’s got the greenhouse, the curriculum and the necessary approvals.

Now all that’s needed are up to 25 students keen on becoming the first crop of students to earn a postsecondary certificate in growing pot.

Niagara College, located in the heart of Ontario wine country, announced Tuesday it will establish a one-year post-grad program in commercial cannabis production, which it says is the first of its kind in Canada.

The first students, who must have earned a diploma or degree in horticulture, agricultural sciences or related fields to qualify for the program, will be part of Niagara’s “class of 2019.”

The program will combine the finer points of plant pathology and how to grow a healthy crop with courses on the complex regulations, standards and legal requirements for licensed producers, says Al Unwin, associate dean of environmental and horticultural studies.

Unwin said in an interview that consultations with licensed producers identified a growing demand for trained workers in the emerging industry, which currently includes 59 producers in Canada, of which 32 are in Ontario.

That demand is expected to continue, driven by legislative changes in Canada and abroad.

“There’s a huge need for highly-skilled well-trained workers who are not only knowledgeable about the crop itself, but the legal requirements governed by Health Canada,” he said.

Niagara currently has a two-year greenhouse technician program “so this seemed like a logical fit,” he added. Some of those students are likely to become candidates for the new certificate, which begins in the fall of 2018.

The program, delivered in 10 courses over two semesters at the college’s campus in Niagara-on-the-Lake, was approved by the Ministry of Advanced Education and Skills Development over the summer.

It will include practical experience working in facilities of commercial producers.

Curriculum is based on current legislation, which limits commercial production to cannabis used to make medical marijuana, hemp fibre and hemp seed.

As regulations change “we’ll certainly be consulting with licensed producers,” Unwin said.

The federal government has said it will legalize recreational marijuana next summer, though rules around distribution, licensing and retail sales will be left to the provinces.

Earlier this month, Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne announced that after legalization, sales of recreational marijuana in the province will be restricted to its 150 LCBO-run stores, that will operate separately from liquor stores.

Last year, a French-language college in New Brunswick announced plans for a cannabis technician program, while other organizations offer online courses.

But Unwin said the Niagara College program is unique and reflects its strategy of being “pre-emptive” when it comes to training workers in new fields.

Earlier this year, it created a similar buzz when it launched a commercial beekeeping program.

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