Four teams from The Farm compete against themselves and other state-licensed producers in the Grow-Off’s quantitative competition
When Ryan Brauchler received his clone for the Grow-Off, he didn’t know anything about its genetics, background or even whether it was an indica, sativa or a hybrid.
So he decided on one simple goal.
“I wanted to play with it and do something I hadn’t done before,” says Brauchler, the grow supervisor of The Farm’s Rock Creek facility outside Boulder, Colorado. “I went big with it.”
Brauchler led one of four teams from The Farm competing in the inaugural Grow-Off, a cannabis competition based on hard evidence and laboratory results.
In the end, his single-minded approach paid off, resulting in what he calls “my Mona Lisa.” His dedication was rewarded with nearly three pounds of smokable product —
1,358.4 grams, to be exact. The results even impressed Brauchler, known on Instagram by the handle “King.Kronic.”
“I was surprised,” he says. “This is the biggest plant I’ve ever seen.”
It was easily the largest plant produced by The Farm, earning bragging rights in that category. But the real battle came later as judges revealed the results of the first cannabis competition of its kind; at the Grow-Off, unlike typical bud cups, all that matters are the numbers.
A DIFFERENT KIND OF COMPETITION
While most cannabis contests pit multiple strains against each other in subjective competitions based on the tastes and — let’s be honest — tolerance of the judges, the Grow-Off was created as an objective, quantitative alternative.
The rules are simple: Each competitor receives clones from the same plant. Nobody is given any information about the strain or its origin. They have six months to grow and harvest the finished product, and a lab decides who takes home the title in three categories: yield, potency and terpene percentage. Each sample had to be smokable — so wet buds couldn’t be used in an attempt to increase weight — and had to comply with all state regulations and testing requirements.
“We wanted to create the ‘Iron Chef’ of weed,” Grow-Off co-founder Jake Browne says. “We gave everybody the same mystery ingredient and said, ‘What can you do with it?’”
Browne, also a noted strain reviewer for The Cannabist, says most competitions are apples-to-oranges comparisons that really don’t indicate the skill or knowledge of the grower. Sending samples to a lab was a more fair way to pick a winner than having a big party where judges sit around and smoke bowl after bowl.
“A few strains in and you have to tap out for a while,” Browne says of judging.
To create a new competition, Browne worked with Samantha Sandt of HempBox, a subscription service focused on hemp products, and Sohum Shah, CEO of the Cannabis Commodities Exchange and co-founder of the Cannabis Technology Association. Together, they formed the Grow-Off.
After clones were handed out, it was entirely up to the grower to decide on lights, medium, nutrients, process and anything else they use in their operations. Winners split $30,000 in cash and prizes.
The organizers have even gone so far as to eschew the traditional “cup” or trophy prizes for winners, instead setting themselves apart by giving winners WWE-style championship belts.
“We wanted it to be fun,” Browne says.
In the end, Browne says it was a “tight competition” at the top, but the resulting numbers were wide-ranging, highlighting the importance of the grower and their technique. He estimates grow operations are 80% similar in scope and style.
“But it’s that 20% that makes such a huge difference.”
BACK ON THE FARM
Those differences were highlighted at The Farm, which sponsored entrants from its Western Avenue, Rock Creek and Nautilus facilities. Even though the growers are all part of the same company, each operation has its own supervisor and character, and the Grow-Off made for some friendly competition and a battle for bragging rights.
“My guys like to drive each other,” says Stephen Lipton, director of cultivation and facilities manager at The Farm. “We’re always pushing each other.”
According to Lipton, the analytical nature of the Grow-Off is what drew his company to participate.
“This is the first awards competition that was lab-based,” Lipton says, adding that his crew does not usually enter subjective competitions, but that using “real scientific results” leads to an equal playing field.
Lipton says each grower at The Farm has slightly different techniques, so not only is the Grow-Off a chance to see how they stack up against other operations, but to compare how each grower’s methods affect their product.
For example, the Rock Creek facility is split into two independent operations. Brauchler leads the A team, while his counterparts, Ethan Daniel and Devin Reyes, handle oversee the B team.
Both used the same lights (315-watt metal halides for veg and ePapillon double-ended, 1,000-watt high-pressure sodium for flowering), growing medium (Royal Gold Tupur) and the same basic, fabric pots for planting, but the growers treated their competition plants differently. Brauchler raised his in a 65-gallon pot and took aim at the yield title; Daniel, on the other hand, used a 45-gallon pot and opted to focus on terpenes and potency, adjusting his feeding regimen to include more molasses, which he says introduces additional carbohydrates and sugars that gave his bloom room a richer scent.
“From our experience, we noted our rooms have more smell,” Daniel says. “The aroma just hits you in the face.”
Meanwhile, at the Nautilus location in Gunbarrel, John Billings, The Farm’s head grower, also used Tupur and fabric pots (though smaller than either Brauchler or Daniel), but different lighting. Billings kept his plant under 315-watt ceramic discharge lamps for both veg and flower.
Finally, at the company’s Western Avenue location, facility manager Blair Ness used 20-gallon fabric pots and 1,000-watt high-pressure sodiums to veg and bloom. Another difference at the Western Avenue facility was hand-watering. According to Lipton, Western Avenue is the only facility in the company that regularly hand-waters its plants, though for this competition Brauchler also hand-watered his plant.
“It does matter,” Lipton says of irrigation versus hand-watering.
And the winners are…
By Brian Beckley
When the contest kicked off in the summer of 2016, 43 entrants received two clones from the same mother plant with the goal of proving their cannabis growing supremacy in three laboratory-based measurements: yield, potency and terpenes.
All submissions had to be smokable and had to pass all Colorado testing rules.
Testing was conducted by TEQ Analytics in Denver. A total of 32 competitors submitted samples to be judged.
As announced April 1, the winners of the inaugural Grow-Off are:
First place – The Herbal Cure: 23.777%
Second Place – Veritas: 23.004%
Third Place – Northern Lights: 22.924%
First place – The Herbal Cure: 2.06%
Second Place – The Clinic: 1.86%
Third Place -The Farm: 1.65%
First place – High Country Healing: 1,598.55 grams
Second Place – The Clinic: 1,435 grams
Third Place – The Farm: 1,358.4 grams
Winners receive a wrestling-style championship belt and split $30,000 in cash and prizes with the top three in each category taking home $3,500, $1,000 and $500, respectively.
The Grow-Off plant as seen during its second week in the Rock Creek B facility’s bloom room.
With the end of the competition, the biggest reveal — aside from the winners (see sidebar) — is the strain of the plant itself.
As unveiled at the awards ceremony, the Grow-Off strain was a 50/50 hybrid called Race Fuel OG, a mix of High Octane OG and Face Off OG, according to Browne.
“It’s a loud OG,” he says, “super greasy and gassy.”
Getting a new strain was important to Browne because it put all the growers on the same level. As part of the $1,000 entry fee, the growers were allowed to keep their crop and continue to grow the clones after the competition period.
“It’s super unique and it was something none of our competitors had in their grows already,” Browne says, adding that they encourage producers to sell it at a premium price. They are making stickers that say “I smoked the Grow-Off.”
Even before knowing its genetics, all the growers at The Farm planned to keep the Grow-Off strain as part of their repertoire.
Prior to learning the name of the strain, The Farm’s competitors believed it was an indica-leaning hybrid and treated it as such.
“We could kind of see what other plants it was mimicking,” Brauchler says, adding that it had an OG smell to it.
Billings also said it reminded him of an OG Kush, while Daniel used its purple color as an indication of its origin.
Turns out the professionals knew exactly what they were talking about.
When the results were finally announced on April 1, growers from The Farm placed third in both yield and in terpenes. Even with his giant plant, Brauchler finished a full 200 grams behind the winner, High Country Healing, in the yield category.
In terpenes, The Farm’s top finisher was the Western Avenue team, which came in third at 1.65%, behind The Herbal Cure at 2.06%. None of The Farm’s entries made the top three in potency.
According to Browne, though there was no overall winner, the growers at The Herbal Cure placed the best in all three categories, taking the top spot in potency and terpenes, and finishing a close fourth in yield, despite being what Browne called “the largest plant we saw, by far.”
But more interesting was the range of results among the 32 competing operations, highlighting the role of the grower. Lab results revealed that even though every grower got the exact same plant, the potency varied from The Herbal Cure’s high of 23.8% THC down to a low of 12%. Most were in the 12-18% range. In yield, High Country Healing pulled 1,598.6 grams off its plant, while the last-place finisher in the category only weighed in at 67 grams.
The Herbal Cure’s head grower Konstantin Grabek called the Grow-Off “the most important award I’ve ever won.”
“I’m speechless to be honest,” he says. “I feel high to this day.”
Grabek says he is keeping his growing secrets close to the vest, but revealed that he used single-ended vented Magnum XXL lights and says that while the competition plant got special attention during the veg stage. Once it was moved to the flower room, it received the same treatment as the rest of the company’s plants.
“We made sure to stay on top of our environment and we were very careful with the plant,” he says. “I got my hands dirty with this plant.”
Grabek also cites the work of his team, particularly harvest manager Uma Rao, who took special care in trimming and curing the plant.
“Without my team none of this would have been possible,” Grabek says. “It was a collective effort.”
Each competitor received a breakdown of their results and Browne says the Grow-Off is digging into the numbers to see the differences between grows, including a look at factors like temperature and humidity, which were all part of the weekly documentation competitors agreed to file as part of the event.
One obvious example of differences among the growers was the wide range of lights: The most popular brand was Gavita (12), followed by TerraLUX (9) and ePapillon (5). The other 16 competitors all used different brands of lighting.
“We still have a lot to learn from this,” Browne says. “The more info we get, the more fascinating this gets.”
Browne says the Grow-Off was a “massive success,” and organizers are already planning to bring the competition to Colorado’s medical market this spring and then into Oregon and California in the future. For Brow
ne, the science-based competition perfectly highlighted the importance of the grower’s role and the techniques used, considering everyone started with the exact same plant.
“How can you say there’s no difference?” he asks.
Lipton says The Farm is already gearing up for the medical competition and he and all of the growers expect to be back again for the second Grow-Off.
“I think everyone loved it,” he says.
“This was a really good chance to not only compete … but to really give us a true perspective on what we’re doing as a company from facility to facility,” he says.
“Everybody’s learning something new on a daily basis,” Brauchler says.
But along with the knowledge gained in the competition, the growers all said more than anything, they appreciate the lab-based nature of the Grow-Off and the data-collection involved because it takes personal taste and subjectivity out of the equation.
“I think this removes all that,” Daniel says. “It’s everything I think the High Times Cannabis Cup should have been.”