Inside an ultra-secure location in South Australia one of the country’s biggest medicinal cannabis farms is harvesting its first crop.

Third-generation citrus grower Brad Gallard, who is at the helm of the multi-million-dollar MedTec Pharma operation in the Riverland region, said it had take almost five years to get to where he was and he was yet to make a cent.

After exploring the viability of several other crops, including hemp, he decided to push forward with medicinal cannabis.

Brad Gallard has drawn on his background as a citrus grower to grow cannabis.(ABC News: Tony Hill)

“The latitude of 34 degrees is really what cannabis does like, there’s obviously certain strains that can do a colder climate, or more humid climates,” he said. 

“But they do say where citrus grows, cannabis grows really well too.”

Aside from the opportunities of an in-demand industry, Mr Gallard said the decision to move into plant medicine was personal.

“My father had Parkinson’s disease and my mum had scleroderma and ulcers … and they tried a bit of their product just after it was legal and saw a reasonable result for at least a few days,” he said.

“So I thought, I’d better look into it.”

Less than six months ago a patch of dirt marked the site where three hectares of sun-grown organic cannabis plants are being harvested by hand.

MedTEC Pharma removed citrus trees to make way for the medicinal cannabis facility. (Supplied: MedTEC Pharma)

Despite some similarities between growing fruit and cannabis, Mr Gallard said the learning curve had been steep.

“This is obviously a much faster acting crop, there’s no doubt about that,” he said.

Mr Gallard said cannabis required similar fertilisers and a similar amount of water to citrus, which in his case came from irrigation.

The operation is one of only a handful in Australia where the plants are grown outdoors, rather than in a glasshouse or building, which reduced electricity costs.

Pacific Island seasonal workers harvest medicinal cannabis.(ABC News: Tony Hill )

Beneficial insects and rigorous biosecurity processes including being a smoke-free work site were in place to protect the crop from diseases such as tobacco virus.

“All our boots and clothes stay on site, so we make sure that nothing comes from anywhere else,” Mr Gallard said.

Employment opportunities

About 30 staff are employed by MedTEC, with the potential for the workforce to grow to 100 people across the entire business.

Serena Lange hadn’t even graduated from her agribusiness degree when she was chosen for a role with the company.

Serena Lange is one of dozens of young South Australians who have picked up work through the operation. (ABC Rural: Eliza Berlage)

Ms Lange said she never imagined a career in the medicinal cannabis industry.

“It’s incredibly exciting and there’s so much learning to be done,” she said.

With the region’s main crop of wine grapes under pressure due to the red wine oversupply, it is seen as vital that new industries develop to provide opportunities for the area to diversify.

The latest figures from the Therapeutic Goods Association show about 1.2 million Australians have accessed medicinal cannabis since it was legalised.

While Australia has the world’s fastest growing medicinal cannabis market, about 80 per cent of what is consumed domestically is imported.

Research scientist Emily Rigby said she launched the Australian Cannabis Cultivators Group last year to help producers increase domestic supply.

Emily Rigby is a passionate advocate for medicinal cannabis.(Supplied: Cannatrek)

Ms Rigby said the onerous requirements of acquiring licensing and permits were a barrier to increasing medicinal cannabis production.

“There’s a huge potential for us around Australia because we’re able to provide jobs,” she said.

“I really think we do need to see the government get a little more behind to help this emerging industry, while we are learning.”

Research and development

MedTec Pharma is not only growing cannabis outdoors.

The company also has indoor grow rooms and plans to build a lab to develop new strains to grow from seed to shelf.

The mother room, kept at a constant 24 degrees and 80 per cent humidity, is where the team nurtures the female cannabis plants to take cuttings and clones.

Female cannabis plants for sourcing clones in a controlled climate room. (ABC Rural: Eliza Berlage)

With more than a dozen varieties of medicinal cannabis being cultivated on site, Ms Lange said record keeping was an important part of her role.

“Traceability is huge throughout the entire process, right from the genetic stock through to production, and harvesting,” she said.

Medicinal cannabis is dried inside on racks after being harvested.(ABC News: Tony Hall )

It has been a long journey for Mr Gallard and his team but it is not the first time he has taken on a venture filled with risk. 

He has successfully raced in the iconic Finke Desert race near Alice Springs multiple times, and taken home a win.

“I was a bit nervous about a few things for both [starting MedTEC and racing] but certainly this venture has been a lot of our life and really engulfed us,” he said.

Mr Gallard said the next step was to develop the crop from three to ten hectares for the next year’s harvest.

“It’s been really exciting and we are really looking forward to the things to come.”

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