Testing a pioneering organic silica product

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(left) Greg Marsh, president at Northern Hemp Specialists, is with Laurie Zuber, horticulture technologist with NC’s Commercial Cannabis Program.

Update as of May 12, 2021:
Northern Hemp Specialists now have licensed producers buying their product and have launched their own website. They are getting market-ready for the United States and working with Health Canada and USDA, and are looking to export the product in the next year. The groundwork laid in the Niagara College project has enabled Northern Hemp Specialists to expand its products successfully.

Northern Hemp Specialists is aiming to “greatly advance” the cannabis and hemp industries with its silica-based organic product. Once the growing trial by Niagara College cannabis students is complete, the Huntsville-based start-up is hoping to show significant improvements in nutrient uptake by the plants.

The post-graduate students from the Cannabis Production Science 2 class have been involved in an extensive growing study in the College’s cannabunker and greenhouse this past semester for the industry partner. The course-based applied research project is managed by Research & Innovation’s Agriculture & Environmental Technologies Innovation Centre, and funded by the Ontario Centres of Excellence through its College Voucher for Technology Adoption program. 

Greg Marsh, president at Northern Hemp Specialists, says his organic silica-based biostimulant also acts as a pesticide for the cannabis and hemp plants, to increase pest resistance.

The class has been overseeing and analyzing the growth of cannabis plants, amended with the silica-based product against control plants. During the trial, researchers have assessed the nutrient composition of the cannabis plants by taking leaf samples of the most recently matured leaf (MRML) at two-week intervals. This gives an indication of the nutrient uptake of the plants in the different treatments.

The cannabis plants have been harvested, and the flower buds will be appropriately dried, and sent for analysis of the cannabinoid and terpenoid content for treatment comparison.

Marsh checked in on the growing trial results this month at the Daniel J. Patterson campus in Niagara-on-the-Lake, and reports a growth improvement to the treated plants to date, compared to the control plants.

“We are hoping the trial will prove that we can increase the absorption rates of silica in cannabis and hemp plants from three percent to 60 percent,” explains Marsh, adding that his pioneering approach – which has been five years in development – should strengthen plants, enabling higher yields of both flowers and leaves, reduces transplant shock and is more pest resistant and efficient through the added strength created in the root zone.

“A 15 percent increase in yields can translate into millions of dollars of extra revenue for growers and producers,” he predicts.

“One of the most important benefits of using our process is that it’s 100 percent organic,” says Marsh. “We have this product that’s two-in-one; when it spreads over the soil, not only does it stop pests from coming through the soil, it also stops them from going from plant to plant on the ground.”

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Northern Hemp Specialists is pleased with the visual growing results so far. The cannabis plant on the left, showing a larger yield, has been treated with their organic silica-based biostimulant product, contrasted against the control plant on the right.

For the burgeoning commercial cannabis growing industry, one of the most significant issues in scaling-up quickly has been combatting disease and controlling pests, says Bill MacDonald, coordinator and professor of NC’s Commercial Cannabis Production (CCP) program, started in 2018.

“You’re extremely limited in your toolbox of pest control products you can use,” says MacDonald. “Growers have to follow Health Canada regulations and, of course, since it is a consumable or inhalable product, it has to be grown and maintained as organic.”

A lot of what MacDonald and his faculty team are teaching in the one-year CCP program is environmental control – learning how to control the environment in terms of heat, humidity and light as well as biological control – which is using “good” bugs to control the destructive pests.

Marsh says his company uses a proprietary mixture of specially engineered bacterial and fungal inoculants, mixed with the silica flour. The product is soil soluble, enhancing the root, stem and leaf strength of cannabis plants, coupled with the ability to resist soil-based pests, such as gnats, borers, snails, aphids and others.

“This product could revolutionize this part of the business and give stronger, pest-free plants, with better yields,” adds Marsh.

“We have found Bill MacDonald, Laurie Zuber and the Niagara College students very knowledgeable and extremely helpful in setting up and administering the project.”

For more information on projects conducted for industry in partnership with the Agriculture & Environmental Technologies Innovation Centre, visit the website.

The project is being funded by the Niagara College-led Greenhouse Technology Network (GTN), through the Federal Economic Development Agency for Southern Ontario (FedDev Ontario).