By Chris Bayley
As this newly emerging industry unfolds, production growers are facing a unique time in history. These growers are now in a position to openly interact with of one of our planet’s most unique and sacred plants. In such a highly competitive field, it will be through breeding programs that growers can set themselves apart and bring a sought-after product to market.
Production growers appear to be taking two different approaches when it comes to cultivating cannabis. The first group is striving to grow the best possible product, while it appears that the second group is less interested in the growth of the plant and is more focused on branding and derivatives. In fact, the argument could be made that the most marketable THC-infused product comes from strain that wins the most awards.
One of the great aspects of Initiative 502 is that it has been written in such a way that has allowed cannabis production to follow in the footsteps of the craft beer and wine industry. This decision led to thousands of producer applications (somewhere in the neighborhood of 2,800). By default, this will increase the diversification of genetics. In turn, this provides both the production growers and consumers a broader range of choices.
However, if growers lose sight of diversification, they run the risk of the cannabis genome getting unintentionally bottlenecked, therefore becoming more homogeneous. This makes it essential for growers to vet the plants and/or seeds they bring in during their 15-day start-up window. This is important because as the rules now stand, aside from the initial 15-day window, the only other opportunity to obtain genetic material will be from other legal production growers in Washington. If your intention is to obtain the best possible genetics, this is why you should begin searching for your seeds/clones well in advance of obtaining your license.
Assuming this rule stands forever (or at least until cannabis is rescheduled at the federal level), production companies will have to be all right with growing the most popular and probably most widely available strains in the state. If you don’t want to be dependent on the status quo, a breeding program should be considered in order to build a strong staple of in-house proprietary strains.
Good strains are created all the time, but for the strains that become immortalized around the world, years of hard work and strict breeding practices were used. Sometimes growers will get lucky and stumble into that one in a million strain, but most of the time, it’s accomplished by careful planning. Keys to a successful breeding program include: educating yourself, utilizing your senses and remaining focused on your specific set of goals.
When choosing your seed stock, keep in mind that you should begin with solid genetics that are “regular” seeds (male/ female). “Feminized” (female/female) and auto-flowering strains have their purposes, but unless you plan to develop these types for seed sales, then they’re generally not recommended. If your goal is to stabilize a strain, and you choose to use feminized seeds in your breeding project, you will be faced with a seedless endeavor. By definition, “stabilizing” — in reference to cannabis — means that a strain isn’t easily induced into a hermaphroditic state. This is important for two reasons: If your goal is to sell sinsemilla (seedless marijuana), then a stable strain is less likely to self-pollinate and potentially diminish your crop’s value. Also, unstable plants are likely to inadvertently pass along a seed to a customer or competitor. Remember, your newly created super-hybrids are your company’s secret recipes and your methods of getting them there are your intellectual property.
Now we can concentrate on how your plants can be improved through acclimating them to their new environment. Here’s an example of why acclimatizing you favorite strain is so important. Have any of you ever heard stories of travelers who’ve gone to some exotic destination and come across some of the best weed they’ve ever had? With the best intentions, they bring those seeds home and patiently spend the next six months growing those plants, only to be disappointed when their prized strain ends up being the infamous Kansas City ditch weed. Why did this happen? Poor growing techniques aside, it was the new environment itself that was the culprit. Duplicating the results of a landrace strain or ecotype that’s being grown out of its usual environment is next to impossible.
Whether you intend to grow in soil or hydro, synthetically or organically, indoors or out, in order to continually improve the quality of the strain, it will need to be bred through several generations in the conditions you intend to grow it in. This becomes especially true for outdoor growers who live in areas susceptible to powdery mildew and who are at the mercy of seasonally inclement weather. In Okanogan County, as an example, the climate is considered to be semi-arid. Given the area’s geo-latitudinal location, nearly 200 days of sunshine per year and low elevation, it’s actually considered a banana belt. Not bad for such a northern locale. However, being on the eastern side of the state means limited rainfall. Couple that with cooler fall temperatures and you get an area that’s very susceptible to powdery mildew. Another concern for that area is the potential killer frosts which can abruptly end the growing season, making it difficult to bring a crop to full maturity. Attempting to take an unproven strain into those conditions, and grow it outdoors, most likely spells trouble. The grief will only multiply when your plan is to grow hundreds of plants of this unproven, un-acclimated strain for one annual crop. The most successful outdoor growers in that area, as in all areas, will need to adopt a multi-year breeding program where they can choose the strongest, most pathogen-resistant strains through the selection process. The prospect of how much better those strains get year after year through a proper selection process is exciting and valuable.
It’s amazing to consider what’s possible when quality seeds and correct propagation techniques are used during breeding projects. Cannabis has one of the most prolific terpene profiles of any plant in the world, and because of this, the possibilities of flavors and aromas are almost limitless. The terpenes are responsible for well-known super strains like the acrid Skunk #1 or DJ Short’s famous Blueberry phenotypes. Of course, the real magic happens through the combination of the cannabinoids and terpenes. It’s only over the last couple of decades we have come to realize it is the combination of the two that are responsible for one plant being able to treat such a plethora of maladies and create so many different states of mind. Next month, we are going to explore how the breeding process works and the outcomes you can look forward to. Until then, remember, “Stay focused and let it grow!”
Chris Bayley operates a consulting company called Hortistructure, Inc., geared toward licensed producers and processors. He is also the co-owner of an I-502 focused gardening store opening mid-July in Okanogan County.