In rural South Jersey, in a huge greenhouse that was custom-built for delicate, brilliantly hued orchids a decade ago, more than 35,000 cannabis plants are expected to be nurtured from seed as early as next spring.

Acreage Holdings, a New York-based cannabis company, purchased the vacant, multimillion-dollar greenhouse in Sewell last April as New Jersey's medical marijuana program exploded and the state began preparing for a potentially bustling recreational market.

The 135,000-square-foot greenhouse is adjacent to Delaware Valley Floral, a nationwide distributor of cut roses and flowers, and is in an area of Gloucester County with scattered houses and farms.  The greenhouse could become the largest marijuana cultivation center on the East Coast.

Acreage is partnering with Compassionate Care Foundation, a dispensary operator that sells cannabis and grows marijuana in an 85,000-square-foot warehouse in Egg Harbor Township, outside Atlantic City.

The new greenhouse "will be a sea of green, a solid canopy with plants that probably max out at three feet," said Phillip Hague, director of cultivation for Acreage, as he showed off the metallic bones of the high-tech facility this month.

Compassionate Care Foundation (CCF), a South Jersey dispensary, is planning to open a 135,000-square-foot cannabis farm inside a high-tech greenhouse that once nurtured a sea of orchids in Sewell.
DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer
Compassionate Care Foundation (CCF), a South Jersey dispensary, is planning to open a 135,000-square-foot cannabis farm inside a high-tech greenhouse that once nurtured a sea of orchids in Sewell.

The company manages dispensaries in 11 other states, including Pennsylvania.  Former House Speaker John Boehner and former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld recently joined its board of advisers.

Unlike CCF's grow center, this one would be fully automated, Hague said.  It would have more than 800 tables that move and contain rows of plants that can be taken in and out of the greenhouse for trimming, harvesting, and other tasks in the growing process.

David Knowlton, president of CCF, said Acreage would help with CCF's expansion plans.  "This greenhouse is state of the art. … We're excited it's so big," he said, noting that the demand for medical marijuana and the possible legalization of recreational marijuana could spark shortages in marijuana supplies.

CCF is awaiting state approval of the new greenhouse as the Department of Health prepares to issue a new round of licenses that would increase the number of dispensaries and grow centers throughout the state.

"We will probably need all that capacity, and then some, given the size of the state and the fact that there are now only six licensed providers in the entire state," Acreage CEO Kevin Murphy said this summer.

One challenge the new greenhouse would present is that cannabis is sun-loving, while the thousands of orchids that once grew there preferred shade and drenching humidity.  Matsui Nursery Inc., based in San Francisco, closed its orchid operation in New Jersey two years ago.

Replacing the pleated shades that blanket the top of the greenhouse with light-diffusing plastics and removing some of the extensive irrigation system are just some of the conversions that would be needed to make the pot plants happy.

Though some people think cannabis grows like a weed, with little attention, this crop would be cultivated with great care.

Hague said people who enter the greenhouse would first be required to "take an air shower" — that is, be subjected to a blast of air to eliminate any insects, fungal spores, or pathogens that might be clinging to them and their clothes.  If they needed to go into the growing area, they would be required to change out of their street clothes.

Phillip Hague, the director of cultivation for Acreage Holdings, expects to grow marijuana in a 135,000- square-foot greenhouse in Sewell next year to serve patients at Compassionate Care Foundation (CCF), a South Jersey dispensary.
DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer
Phillip Hague, the director of cultivation for Acreage Holdings, expects to grow marijuana in a 135,000- square-foot greenhouse in Sewell next year to serve patients at Compassionate Care Foundation (CCF), a South Jersey dispensary.

Unlike most other cultivation centers, this one would grow cannabis from seeds — not clones — to see which have the best genetic traits and which can produce successful strains with varying amounts of such cannabis ingredients as THC, CBC, and terpines, Hague said.  He also wants the greenhouse to be sterile and to avoid any contamination.

A controlled, computerized environment would be created to mimic the seasons and the length of day for the desired harvest, he said.  Different levels of light, temperature, and humidity would be applied.

Going from seed to harvest takes about three months, he said.  Four more months are needed after that for drying and finishing the process before the cannabis is ready to be sold.

Air filters would be installed to control the plant's odor.  "We want to be good neighbors," Hague said.

Hague anticipates that the staff at the greenhouse would include about 10 growers and 40 other employees who would do the trimming and other jobs.  Rainwater would be recycled, and there may be a co-generation of power.

These measures would "lessen our environmental footprint, give us more control and lower costs," Hague said.

Acreage operates a dozen other cannabis greenhouses, but this would be its largest, about 50,000 square feet bigger than the one in Syracuse, N.Y.  The company also plans to add 30,000 square feet to the greenhouse in Sewell for the vegetative phase of the growing process.

Cady Riley, CCF's administrative manager, said the greenhouse is ideal, but Acreage would "have to tweak it a lot to get it ready to grow cannabis."  CCF also has plans to expand its cultivation area in its Egg Harbor Township facility as the need for more product increases the demand, she said.

There are two dispensaries in South Jersey, with the second one in Bellmawr.  That dispensary, Curaleaf , is expanding its existing cultivation center.