For decades, farmers have been breeding heirloom varieties of fruits and vegetables, seeking to balance desirable heirloom qualities, like taste, with commercial viability. Produce breeders focused on ease of production and disease resistance, among other traits.
Cannabis breeders have been following in their footsteps, developing genetics that are revered for their potency, their yield or their terpene-rich flavor profiles. Despite rapid legalization in the United States, for decades, cannabis breeding was done in a prohibition market. Plants needed to thrive indoors, under artificial lighting conditions. Or, in the case of the medical market, where growers were limited by plant count, individual plants needed to put out tremendous weight. Ruderalis strains, colloquially known as autoflowers, were unappealing to breeders. These strains required more light and were much smaller than their indica and sativa cousins.
But with legalization and the development of large-scale, outdoor grow operations, today’s farmers and breeders are facing completely different market conditions. Innovative players are seeing the changing landscape as an opportunity to reexamine methods and philosophies that carried the industry through its formative stages.
Cultivation companies now face an incredibly competitive landscape and the ever-present threat of dwindling flower prices. To compensate for the evolving business model, many companies are now taking a fresh look at autoflowers to supplement or even replace full-term varietals. Typically finishing their flowering about 60 to 75 days after germination, autoflowers allow outdoor farms to double or even triple their production in a single season. And in a legal landscape where cannabis can be grown in open fields, the sunlight that autoflowers need to grow quickly is abundant and free.
While autoflowering varieties had long been stigmatized as inferior, low potency cannabis, today’s quickly evolving legal market is changing this view. Some of the top breeders in the country have been turning their energy to developing high-quality autoflowering genetics, transforming the industry’s ugly duckling into a swan.
Leading the Change
In Washington, one company leading the autoflower revolution is Walden Cannabis, an outdoor grower in north-central Washington that was able to dramatically increase its revenue with autoflowers, both in selling flower wholesale to retailers and in selling seeds to other growers. In 2020, Walden sold about $5.5 million worth of cannabis, including $750,000 from seeds, which also helped several Walden clients achieve record sales last year. The company is now taking orders for autoflowering seeds, including its popular Typhoon, Orange Kush, Candy Kush, Wavy Blue and Mandarin Cream Cheese strains, available to state-licensed cannabis producers in Washington state.
To most people involved in cannabis, autoflowers have a reputation of being inferior to their photoperiod counterparts. For starters, they’re almost always lower potency. Even today, Walden’s autoflowers average about 4 percentage points lower in THC than its full-term crops. But that gap — and the gap in perceived “quality” — is shrinking every year as the company accelerates its breeding program.
Walden Cannabis Director of Farm Operations Joshua Gonzales says the company’s efforts to breed for potency, flavor and structure have paid off immensely. With 25 years of experience in cannabis cultivation, he’s not selling anybody on an inferior product.
“You think I would do something stupid like this if I didn’t think it was going to be successful?” he says. “I don’t have to stake my own personal word on it anymore. You can just look at the sales numbers.”
“We were really struggling our first years, in large part, because we hadn’t fully transitioned to taking the dive into autoflowers,” CEO Anders Taylor says. “Just the amount of extra revenue that we’ve gotten from these has really allowed us to thrive. Flower sales have been so much better as a result of the autos.”
Gonzales and Taylor believe autoflowers have the potential to revolutionize the industry and — perhaps more importantly — save many of the family farms that have struggled in Washington’s oversaturated market.
Despite a persistent stigma, autoflowers have several major advantages over their photoperiod counterparts. The obvious benefit is the ability to grow two outdoor crops a year, without the need for hoop houses and light-deprivation tarps. Walden’s autoflower genetics range from 60 to 75 days from germination to harvest. A farm with its planting and harvesting logistics in order can feasibly get three full outdoor crops per year with autoflowers. But whether a farm is getting two crops a year or three, that mid-summer harvest allows growers to sell their crop at a higher price before the Croptober deluge causes prices to bottom out.
But arguably the most important benefit is the reduction of labor required. The plants rarely grow taller than three or four feet. Gone are the days of crew members dragging 12-foot ladders from one plant to the next during harvest season. Gone is the labor-intensive process of pruning during the flowering cycle. Plus, Gonzales says the autoflowers are “bulletproof.”
“We literally plant these things in the ground, and we scout for hermaphrodites and that’s it,” he says. “There’s no pruning. There’s no trellising. There’s nothing but watering.”
Autoflowers also allow Walden Cannabis to target consumers looking for quality cannabis at an ultra-low price.
“I have not worked for a company that truly cared about the lower-end cannabis consumer like Walden does,” Gonzales says. “Traditionally, something’s wrong with the flower to hit that price point. Just because you don’t have a lot of money doesn’t mean you have to smoke really shitty weed.”
Walden’s autoflower breeding program really took off when Joshua Gonzales joined the company, and the boom in seed sales began when his wife, Cindy Gonzales, followed suit about six months later.
“They’re both very passionate people, and they’ve got deep roots in the industry,” Taylor says of the Gonzaleses. “I can’t imagine that our breeding would be going as quickly as it is if we didn’t have people like them.”
Walden Cannabis went from selling $30,000 worth of seeds in 2019 to three-quarters of a million dollars in 2020, with Cindy overseeing seed sales and the company’s nursery.
“It’s actually blown up in a way that I had not anticipated at all,” Taylor says.
“My interest in cannabis came from my father,” Cindy says. “So cannabis is more than just getting high for me. It’s just part of my DNA. It’s part of my makeup. I realized cannabis relieved a lot of the anxiety issues that I had at that time, so I found the spirituality and the medicinal side of it very important.”
Her time spent working with a seed company in Spain helped her learn the ins and outs of breeding and of working with autoflowers. Joshua says Cindy has always made breeding selections for him because of her attention to detail and knowing the traits to look for.
“She’s always been the heart and soul behind the breeding projects, and I’ve been the more logistical type person,” he says.
Cindy worked for a few different companies in Washington’s adult-use industry prior to joining Walden Cannabis, but her initial experience left her disillusioned by the culture of the business.
“It was a very male-dominated industry,” she says. “So I found myself in a lot of situations where there were misogynistic men that I was having to deal with, and just had to smile because I didn’t want to ruin the business transaction. It took a toll on me mentally.”
Joining Walden rejuvenated her love of working in the cannabis industry.
“I’ve never felt more respected in this industry than I did when I came into Walden,” she says. “It’s felt really nice to be supported and to be respected. I can’t thank them enough for being different than some of the other companies I’ve worked for.”
Walden’s company culture was one of the biggest selling points for Joshua, as well. It’s just a different type of company, he says.
While plenty of companies talk about having a progressive philosophy, “I’ve never worked with another company that truly walks the walk and talks the talk like Walden does,” Joshua says, pointing out that Walden paid its agricultural workers overtime even before it was mandated by a changing state law.
“My message to other farms is to really listen to your employees and really appreciate the hard work they’re doing,” Cindy adds. “That kind of stuff speaks very loudly to them, and it makes them take even more pride in what they’re putting in those bags.”
Planting the Seed
Taylor started working with autoflowers within his first couple years as a commercial grower in Washington’s adult-use industry.
Having moved from Seattle to Eastern Washington, he was intrigued by the hundreds of apple orchards lining the roads near Brewster, in southern Okanogan County, where Walden Cannabis is located. Taylor talked with a longtime resident of the area who understood the history of the orchards and showed him newspaper clippings of old apple orchards with massive trees and farmworkers on big ladders picking the fruit.
The apple trees of today, however, are mostly uniform, with very few being taller than a man can reach without the aid of a step ladder. They’ve been bred to maximize efficiency of labor. Taylor immediately recognized the parallels with commercial cannabis.
“Growing big plants seemed kind of silly because I just saw it as so much work,” he laughs. “I was like, what the hell am I doing? I’m spending so much time pruning.”
Walden started with a small test plot of autoflowers that was, admittedly, pretty low quality.
“But the potential was there,” Taylor says.
In its second year of operation, Walden Cannabis harvested a little bit of weight from autoflowers. It wasn’t very much, but it was interesting and it sparked bigger ideas. Every year since, the company has increased the amount of space devoted to autoflowers.
By the time Gonzales joined Walden in 2019, autoflowers were a substantial part of the business — and the timing couldn’t have been better. That fall, a brutal cold snap swept over the Okanogan Valley, putting many farms in dire straits.
“The only reason we were able to have success that year was because we had a massive autoflower haul in the summer before that crazy freeze,” Gonzales says. “I know a lot of people that just didn’t recover from that. That frost was devastating to a lot of people.”
Gonzales estimates that one out of every five years, outdoor growers are going to deal with a major catastrophe, whether it’s a spring snowstorm, a late summer monsoon, an early fall freeze or the wildfires that have battered Eastern Washington, Southern Oregon and Northern California in recent years. Growing autoflowers is a hedge against any number of natural disasters that can lead to crop failure and ruin the year for a farm growing only a single, full-term crop. It mitigates the unpredictability of growing outdoors and relying on a single, successful crop each year.
Eyes on the Future
Gonzales saw the need to be adaptable long before he ever joined Walden Cannabis.
“I was fortunate enough to be involved in the industry when we were getting $6,500 a pound, but I came in right at the tail end of that,” he says. From there, he could see the price falling almost a thousand dollars every harvest. $5,500. $4,800. $3,600. $3,000.
“At that point, we can’t just go buy whatever’s in the hydro store anymore,” he says. “That’s not going to work. We’re not printing money. And so I started to look at how traditional ag is doing this type of stuff.”
Gonzales started looking closer at efficiency. It opened his mind to doing things differently than the conventional wisdom of most cannabis growers at the time. After talking with one well-known cannabis grower, he began to see the value of growing smaller plants.
By the time he met Taylor, the Walden Cannabis founder and CEO was already on his way to becoming an autoflower evangelist. Taylor’s previous career experience — as a data analyst and a poker player — was about as far removed from cannabis cultivation as possible. That meant he didn’t have entrenched ideas about how things were supposed to be.
“Innovation often comes from people who have a slightly different perspective on things,” Taylor says.
Without two of the company’s top managers being open to change, Walden Cannabis may never have taken the plunge into autoflowers.
But now, autoflowers play a big role in Walden’s future and, Taylor believes, could be the key to other farms unlocking their profit potential.
“Honestly, anybody who’s not growing autoflowers this year is not really going to be competitive,” he says. “I think it’s going to be hard to compete with this trend.”