Edwin Jewell knows how to grow.
The Prince Edward Island agriculturist was raised on a vegetable farm on the outskirts of Charlottetown.
After graduating from Charlottetown Rural High School, he worked alongside his father and two brothers for 18 years. Potatoes, turnips and cabbages, then hothouse flowers like geraniums and other ornamental plants.
His arms are tanned and freckled where his shirt sleeves are rolled up, and it is easy to imagine him guiding a tractor around green fields in a tourism poster.
But you’d be wrong to underestimate the lifelong farmer’s harnessed commercial ambition and attention to detail. He’s equally at ease in his office in the Charlottetown BioCommons Research Park as he is in a field of turnips.
A heavy watch and tailored shirt rest comfortably in place as he recounts his path to the business of growing cannabis.
“Basically, my whole life, I’ve done nothing but grow plants,” he said.
Jewell bought out his brothers in the greenhouse business and expanded to a full acre under glass.
But he didn’t stop there. Jewell kept looking for opportunities.
“I was in the greenhouse one day, trying to figure what other crop could I grow that would add value, that would really give us a good kick. The idea of growing cannabis came into my head.”
That was January 2013. Jewell searched online for more information and found that Health Canada was about to issue licenses to grow medicinal cannabis.
He took the plunge.
“It was hugely risky,” he said. “I told my wife if this didn’t work, we’d literally be living in a tent. We had risked everything we had to make this work.”
And doing it on P.E.I. wasn’t always easy.
Jewell was one of the few who knew the rules were changing. There was a process of education each time he approached a new player in the process. Eyebrows were raised at the provincial government when he went to buy land in the industrial park, at the city when he applied for permits to build and at the insurers.
“In many cases they would chuckle to think that that’s what I was going to do,” he said.
In the end, Jewell raised the $7 million from private investors and became the 32nd certified cannabis grower in Canada.
It helped that Health Canada issued Jewell a letter that stated, if he met two conditions, it would issue a license to him.
As a fifth-generation farmer, Jewell’s background added to his credibility.
“We’re not some investor from Toronto trying to get into the cannabis business, we’re a farm family.”
Jewell’s initial risk was to open Canada’s Island Gardens, a licensed medical producer.
Island Gardens established itself in the market and Jewell fine-tuned production.
Three years later, Jewell and his team of nearly 100 staff have the process dialed in, producing consistent product.
When sales took off, Jewell was able to attract a partner — a small U.S. tobacco company Alliance One International — to help with financing and managerial expertise.
Alliance One decided to diversify by investing in cannabis in 2018 and at about the same time changed its name to Pyxus International Inc.
FIGR Cannabis, headquartered in Toronto, is a subsidiary of Pyxus and its wholly owned subsidiaries changed their names from Canada’s Island Garden to FIGR East, and Goldleaf Pharm in Simcoe, Ont. to FIGR Norfolk.
In 2018, recreational cannabis sales quickly overtook demand from medical clients. And although Jewell now focuses almost entirely on growing for the recreational market, he said the company still supplies its original medical-marijuana customers who were foundational to the company.
Now, FIGR is about to increase production by 30 times the current output. Its new facility is certified to Europe’s Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP) standards, and is just waiting for the final approval from Health Canada before Jewell starts to move in baby plants.
“Even today, the fact that my background is in horticulture has helped in so many ways. Because at the end of the day we’re growing a crop,” he said.