At one of Ecuador’s oldest flower farms, workers are planting hemp on land that was traditionally used for roses, making a bet that selling cannabinoid products wold help offset the decline in flower sales caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Declining sales spurred by COVID-19 dealt a heavy blow to Ecuador’s flower sector, one of the Andean nation’s traditional export industries, leaving farms cutting output or seeking to reinvent themselves.
The Boutique Flowers farm in Tabacundo, an hour north of the capital, Quito, has built cannabis greenhouses to take advantage of recent legal reforms that allow for cultivation of the plant — even though marijuana remains illegal.
Marijuana contains higher levels of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) — the cannabinoid that causes a high — than hemp. Ecuadorean law requires that cannabis have less than 1 percent THC.
“The project was born from hard times,” said Klaus Graetzer, Boutique Flowers floriculture manager and president of hemp start-up CannAndes.
“In the pandemic, the flower industry was hit hard. We saw the chance to take advantage of this new regulation,” he said.
His 30 hectare farm slashed rose production by 37.5 percent to 15 million stems last year due to a drop in orders from the US, Europe and Russia, its main markets.
Ecuador’s total flower exports fell 8 percent last year, flower producer and export association Expoflores says.
Cannabis plants are increasingly cultivated globally for the extraction of cannabidiol (CBD), which is being researched for various medical applications and has found increased use as a relaxant.
However, CannAndes sees the greatest potential in the niche business of hemp flowers, which is smoked as a palliative for conditions such as nausea or anxiety.
Hemp flowers do not have psychotropic effects, and can be produced with much of the flower industry’s traditional infrastructure. In contrast, CBD oils require industrial machinery to separate oil from plant material.
“The idea is to get to export smokable CBD flowers to Switzerland: That’s the biggest market for this flower,” CannAndes manager Felipe Norton said. “Given the experience we have with flowers, it’s a good opportunity.”
CannAndes plans to begin exporting the product in the next two years, and it is seeking licenses from Ecuadorean authorities to sell CBD products such as creams for body care as well as teas and edible oils for chocolates and sweets.
Ecuador’s flower industry leaders remain skeptical of hemp because the value of the associated products swing sharply with shifts in consumer fads and government regulatory decisions, Expoflores president Alejandro Martinez said.
Ecuador in late 2019 legalized the imports of hemp seeds, as well as the production, marketing and export of hemp. The Ecuadorian Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock, Aquaculture and Fisheries has approved 46 10-year licenses for various phases of hemp development.
“We have the climate and soil conditions to do the cultivation, but it will be the demand that will dictate the level of supply,” Ecuadorian Vice Minister of Productive Development Ney Barrionuevo said. “For now, it is incipient.”
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