The acquisition of starter genetics can significantly influence the speed at which a new cultivation business comes to market. Starter genetics are the seeds or plants that a cannabis operation acquires to launch its cultivation program. The right decision at this stage can make or break a grower’s rapid entry to market. The seed conundrumAcquiring cannabis seeds is easy, but reaching commercial-scale production with them is not. This is because cannabis seeds are very unstable. When I was a commercial greenhouse grower of ornamental and edible crops, I sowed about 500,000 seeds of different flower, herb, and vegetable varieties each year.Most of this commercialized seed had a uniformity of 97% or better. If I sowed 100 purple petunia seeds, most of those plants would exhibit the same growth characteristics, size, and flower color once fully mature. This made cultivating large quantities of plants very efficient.Once I switched to commercial cannabis production, I soon realized this wasn’t the case. Sowing 100 seeds of any cannabis variety is likely to result in 50 or more different versions of that variety in terms of morphology, flower size, and cannabinoid content. These different versions are called phenotypes. The long road to refinementConsidering all of the different versions present in just one variety of cannabis started from seed, commercial growers must engage in the time-consuming—albeit fun—process of refining their genetics. This involves sowing a lot of seeds and observing the plants for both commercially desirable and consumer desirable traits. Commercially desirable traits are characteristics like quick-flowering, heavy yielding, and compact plants. Consumer desirable traits are qualities like a high THC content and a unique mix of terpenes. The genetics refinement process, sometimes called pheno hunting, goes like this:Seven steps to a successful pheno hunt1. A minimum of 200 seeds are sown per variety. More is better. 2. After six weeks, cuttings are taken from these plants. 3. Once the cuttings have rooted, they are held as stock plants and the original seed plants are forced to flower.4. The crop is monitored for desirable traits, and the harvested flower is analyzed for taste, smell, appearance, structure, color, and cannabinoid content. 5. Once the “keepers” have been identified, they’re traced back to the corresponding stock plants and more cuttings are taken. The remaining undesirable stock plants are eliminated. 6. The keeper phenotypes are grown out at least two more times and observed closely. 7. If subsequent runs are consistent in terms of growth habit and flower quality, the phenotype is ready for commercial production. Enough stock plants are grown to generate several hundred cuttings on a regular basis. The good, the bad, and the riskyThe upside to pheno hunting is that it’s fun and exciting work. Discovering all of the different versions of a variety is a truly fascinating process. Some plants grow short and stout, while others end up tall and skinny. Some flowers are dense and resinous, while others are airy and light. Some phenotypes will have no visible resin at all. For the cannabis aficionado, the best part is the smell test. Walking the crop during the last few weeks of the flower cycle and evaluating each phenotype’s unique mix of terpenes is like a party in your nose. Astute growers know they need to “cleanse their pallet” between plants so they can perform a proper and fair evaluation. Anyone that has smelled fresh cannabis flower understands that it definitely lingers in your nose! Carrying around a cup of freshly-ground coffee beans and smelling it between plants helps to center a person’s olfactory senses so they can properly evaluate each plant. The downside to pheno hunting is the time, space, and labor required to identify the best plants. The process can take 10-12 months before a desirable cultivar is ready for incorporation into commercial production. These trials require a lot of space that could otherwise be used for crop production, and most of the resulting plants in these trials will not be marketable. More than 95% of the stock plants will be tossed, and it can be challenging to sell flower harvested from a pheno hunt. Because the crop’s cannabinoid content will vary dramatically from plant to plant, accurately determining a lot’s THC and CBD content is almost impossible. The process also poses a threat to surrounding grow rooms, especially if the test area is not tightly sealed. Male and hermaphroditic plants frequently pop up during pheno hunting projects, and once they’re identified, it’s often too late. Pollen can make its way to other grow rooms through ventilation systems or on employee’s clothes. Unintentionally seeded crops will dramatically lower the value of a flowering cannabis crop. What’s an entrepreneur to do? In newly regulated cannabis markets, starting from seed may be the only option. In more mature markets, however, cultivation businesses would do well to pursue the purchase of rooted cuttings. Also referred to as clones, rooted cuttings come from plants that have already been through a pheno hunting or breeding process. Cannabinoid content, yield, and flowering times are consistent. If the option exists, placing an order for several hundred clones is the fastest way to launch a new start-up. However, there are some important caveats that entrepreneurs should keep in mind if they go this route. First, buying live plants is highly dependent on availability and regulations. Although THC transportation across state lines is prohibited, seedlings have minimal THC and are indistinguishable from hemp seedlings. If you want to ship rooted cuttings from another state, be clear on the regulations and work closely with a lawyer. Second, there is a risk of introducing disease or insects into your operation. The best option is to buy from a tissue culture lab. All plant material that leaves a tissue culture lab is certified disease-free. If acquiring plants from a traditional propagator, visit the site and look at the stock plants and cuttings in production. If the area is unkempt and the plants aren’t healthy, keep looking. Third, there is no standard pricing. Some vendors charge a flat fee per plant, while others will charge a royalty fee each time their genetics are harvested or propagated. ConclusionIf clean, disease-free cuttings are available in your market, buying rooted cuttings can help expedite a company’s arrival to market by several months. Once a cultivation business is operational and realizing revenue, then would be an appropriate time to launch an in-house pheno hunting project… and have fun with it!
Ryan Douglas helps new cultivation businesses come to market quickly and spend less money getting there. He is the founder of Ryan Douglas Cultivation, LLC and author of From Seed to Success: How to Launch a Great Cannabis Cultivation Business in Record Time. Ryan has worked in commercial horticulture for 23 years and specializes in legal cannabis start-ups.
Before entering the cannabis industry, Ryan spent 15 years as a commercial greenhouse grower of ornamental and edible crops, growing up to 600,000 plants annually. As Master Grower from 2013 to 2016, he directed cultivation for Tweed Inc., the flagship subsidiary of Canopy Growth Corporation. Ryan now offers cultivation advisory services to cannabis operators worldwide, and he can be reached through his website, douglascultivation.com.
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