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£28m UK Horticultural Firm Turns To Cannabis: ‘We are learning More And More About This Fascinating Plant’

WITH the equivalent of over 35 football pitches of covered growing space and the potential to add almost the same again the Bridge Farm Group is shaping up to be a major force in the emerging legal cannabis industry.

It secured its UK industrial hemp licence in 2018 and with a series of successful harvests under its belt is refining potential routes to market in the CBD and botanicals space.

Louise Motala, MD Bridge Farm Group.

In January, this year, it also secured a high-THC research licence and is plotting a potential path into the medicinal cannabis, too.

Speaking to BusinessCann Managing Director Louise Motala, said: “We are learning more and more about this fascinating plant.

“We are conducting different trials in terms of growing methods and, for us, it is about us bringing a range of plant-based products to market which contain the botanicals we already grow, and the CBD elements of what we can grow and extract.”

Based in Spalding, Lincolnshire, it is located in a UK horticultural hotspot, surrounded by fields of brassicas and other food crops destined for the domestic market.

The business was founded in 1988 and has grown steadily over the years to be one of the UK’s leading producers ornamental plants, edible herbs and flowers. Its customer include; Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Morrisons and Asda.

Tony and Jayne Ball were the founders and their son David took the senior role and in 2011.

Ms Motala continued: “David’s approach was transformative and entrepreneurial. He quickly realised that the business needed to evolve and invest if it was to survive.

“There were inflationary cost pressures, such as labour, and selling prices continuing to be restricted, so the future had to be about scale, efficiency and sustainability. These needed to be at the front, and centre of the business model.

David Ball.

“The ornamental plant industry has never had the level of investment that the food and, for example, tomato industry has had and David realised that if it was to survive, that would be needed.”

In 2018, it started work on a new glass-house facility at Clay Lake, in Spalding, on a 70-acre site which so far hosts 2m sqft of covered growing facility with the potential to add a further 1.5m sqft.

Last summer the business was bought by leading Canadian cannabis cultivation firm Sundial Growers and David Ball left to join cannabis-focused private equity firm Artemis Growth Partners.

However, as with many of the Canadian Licensed Producers Sundial struggled as global cannabis stocks crashed by over 50%, and in May this year it sold the business to Artemis.

Ms Motala described the year-long ownership of Sundial as ‘exciting’ adding it was time to put that ‘period of instability behind them’.

New York investors in Sundial would possibly find a different adjective to describe Sundial’s marketing of Bridge Farm, after launching a court action over alleged ‘misleading’ claims on its potential.

Ms Motala says ‘it’s great’ to have David back on board as an investor, with Artemis seeing great potential in the business.

She said: “It’s Incredibly exciting news for our stability. He understands the business inside out and is passionate about it.”

Bridge Farm Group greenhouses.

Speaking at the recent Prohibition Partners Live event, last month, Will Muecke, co-founding General Partner at Artemis outlined its vision for Bridge Farm. 

“We find it to be one of our most exciting investments in Europe. It is company that has come out of a horticultural play. It has perfected, at scale, growing ornamental plants, edible herbs and flowers in the UK market with great play-through to the main retailers.

“The company has a 30-year history, and a well-known management team.

“One of the assets’ attributes we were particularly excited about is the 2m sq ft of highly-automated greenhouse space. So, for us this could be a cornerstone for a global play.

“But we’re looking first to get the company well-funded to service Europe from a CBD standpoint, and then, ultimately, a medical cannabis standpoint and then to compete on a global stage.

“Cannabis is one part of a larger plant-medicinal play. The company has an industrial hemp licence and an R&D licence for high-THC which we hope to ultimately convert into a commercial licence and, in our view, a methodical and slow approach into the EU and global market

“Bridge Farm can compete with many open-air, low-cost growers because of its high-automation and it would be a cornerstone to service our operations’ portfolio as as a cannabis cultivator, extractor and then a full-scale product developer.”

Ms Motala went on to say it is looking at a range of potential downstream opportunities for the months and years ahead. 

“We want to make sure we do it properly, with clear transparency in the supply chain, and we will not rush. We will do it when we are ready,” she added.

The company has annual revenues of around £28m and employs around 200 people. 

Its high-level of automation has allowed it to develop a highly-efficient operation and substantially reduce its headcount in recent years. The hi-tech nature of its operations are well-suited for a post-Brexit and Covid-19 world.

Ms Motala continued: “We need operational models with less labour as we continue to grow. We have great facilities and there are great opportunities for plant-based products that include cannabis-derived CBD.

“Plant-based medicine and plant-based wellness are global trends as people look to take care of themselves in a sustainable way.

“What we have here, in Spalding, is a great platform to be part of these emerging markets. We have great credentials and understand plant genetics. We are going to be around for some time to come.”

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