Tom Forrest, Puro:

“$13 million government grant shows trust in the NZ organic medicinal cannabis industry”

“If you would have told me five years ago that the federal government would support organic cannabis farming, I would have said you are dreaming. But the fact that they are supporting us with a $13 million grant shows great trust in this exciting emerging industry,” says Tom Forrest, Co-Founder of Puro New Zealand. The company is the country’s largest medicinal cannabis grower, and they are now working with the support of the New Zealand Federal Government. “Under the agreement, we will work on developing cultivars that are suitable for the New Zealand market and provide patients with locally grown, organic cannabis.”

Tom Forrest 

The Kekerengu location: 10 hectares of BioGro Certified Organic outdoor production

Supporting the New Zealand market
According to Forrest, the grant will fast-track the broader cannabis industry and organic cultivation of cannabis in New Zealand. “There are several different aspects that we will be working on under the agreement. First of all, we will be writing a playbook on organic cultivation. This will discuss everything from site selection to soil amelioration and IPM, and even through to harvesting, packaging, and processing. The playbook will be available to the New Zealand industry with the idea of helping other cultivators to grow. Another big aspect of the grant looks at research and breeding. We will be working with New Zealand genetics companies to develop, refine and catalog the existing cannabis cultivars, but also to develop cultivars that are suited to the country’s environment. We are trying to find something that fits the bill of New Zealand’s phenomenal reputation for premium agricultural commodities. You can compare it to the popularity of the Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, which is now a multibillion-dollar industry. We want to do something similar for cannabis: find a cultivar that suits the environment, refine it and take advantage of the local climate to bring that to market.”

Indoor production at the Waihopai location 

Trait-driven breeding
When it comes to developing new strains, Puro will be working with AbacusBio. “We want to take cannabis breeding as less of an art form and make it into a science. Typically, through prohibition and the early-stage cannabis industry, people have been breeding subjectively. Instead, we want to take breeding to a quantifiable trait-driven breeding program. For example, we will be using marker-assisted breeding, developing chemical cannabinoid profiles that are desirable for certain patients, and looking at minor cannabinoids that aren’t getting the spotlight yet. We will also be looking at typical agricultural traits, such as plant height and density, leaf to flower to stem ratio, and pest and disease tolerance. During prohibition, these aspects weren’t as much of a focus. We now want to bring all of these traits together and use that data-driven approach to develop cultivars that are suitable for the New Zealand market and abroad.”

Organic cultivation
Concerning their production, Puro has two sites operational. “The first is our indoor Waihopai location, which is where we do our research and breeding. This allows us to generate lots of data, and it’s also the nursery that will feed our future sites. Our Kekerengu location is 10 hectares of certified organic outdoor production on the East coast. We grow in beautifully rich soil and do soil tests to track the mineral content, which we will be building up over the years with organic certified soil ameliorations. We then inoculate the soil with certain mycorrhizal bacteria species, working in harmony with living soil. We spray non-harmful pesticides to keep the caterpillar pest pressure down, and we also regularly release beneficial predator insects."

"Moreover, we rely heavily on our site as it exists. We are about 150 meters from the ocean, so we get a nice sea breeze with great quality air coming through the site. And while at a glance at our site may look like a monoculture production with just rows and rows of 50,000 cannabis plants, it is actually a very controlled polyculture. We have planted 22 different species of cover crops in between the rows. As a result, we have incredible biodiversity, attracting a wide assortment of predator bugs doing the work for us.”

The company just recently finished the hard work of what may be the largest medicinal cannabis harvest in New Zealand and Australia. "We were proud to harvest in excess of 30 tonnes of material from the field, which is then processed via our multiple drying methods to remove moisture. This is followed by trimming, milling, and packaging into pharmaceutical starting material. This may be the largest harvest of medicinal cannabis recorded in Australia/New Zealand.”

The cover crops during the summer season  

Vegetative growth in the field 

Overall, the grant accelerates the work that Puro was already doing, and shows trust from the New Zealand federal government in the wider cannabis industry, explains Forrest. “The industry only started here in 2018 with the first regulatory change and is still in its infancy. This government support is allowing it to grow quickly with federal oversight, which is very exciting. We are proud of having achieved this support, and we will continue to help pioneer the industry. As we grow, other cultivators will grow with us. If we all do well together, it’s good for the entire industry.” Forrest also explains that the grant is not only good for the economic stimulus but also for the community. “Kiwis take a lot of pride in their country and land. It’s not just a matter of taking advantage of it, it’s important to look after the environment and the local flora and fauna. That is why this support of local, organic cultivation is a great reinforcement of the local mindset.”

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