Priorities in Strain Evaluation for Commercial Cultivators

When I stepped into my former cultivation facility for the first time as an entry-level gardener, I was astounded by the dozens of “strains,” as well as how vastly different many of them were from each other. However, what amused and amazed me as a new staff member became one of my biggest challenges once I ascended to the position of Cultivation Manager: Namely, running the operations of a large cultivation facility smoothly while juggling the various characteristics and needs of dozens of diverse genetics.

Increasing numbers operators are seeing the benefits of growing a smaller, more manageable number of strains, which are more properly called “cultivars” in traditional agricultural parlance. Fewer cultivars means more uniform, efficient, predictable, and, ultimately, more profitable operations, provided that the right few are selected. But how is a cultivation operation’s owner or manager supposed to decide what is best for the business in paring down one’s “stable” of cultivars? In other words, which genetics should make the cut, and why?

In what follows, I set out criteria for evaluating and selecting known genetics to the best advantage of your commercial cultivation operation. “Known” is the key word in the previous sentence, as the criteria below cannot be evaluated meaningfully if data collection and analysis on cultivar performance has not taken place. I must also note that cultivators need to be extremely wary in bringing new genetics into their operation, as that is one of the most common ways in which pests are spread. Additionally, I consider the demands of customers, who often seek out variety, and will discuss matters of marketing in my concluding remarks.

Overall, commercial cultivators should evaluate genetics according to the following criteria, ranked in order of importance: pest resistance, suitability of cultivar characteristics to your growing method, yield, and “quality,” which I put in quotations due to the fact that it is dependent on one’s specific market.

  1. Pest Resistance

Pest resistance should be the foremost desirable trait for commercial cultivators in evaluating existing genetics. Cultivar evaluation in cannabis production has in the past largely focused on yield and potency. Now, the increasingly strict regulations around pesticide use and required testing for molds, mildews, and microbial contamination being implemented in nearly every legal cannabis market means that if your product is not compliant, then it could end up being quarantined and destroyed by regulators, leaving you with nothing.

Nearly every experienced cannabis farmer will attest to growing one or more cultivars that are seemingly impervious to the plant’s primary pests, mildews and mites. Growing only such cultivars is one of the most effective ways to ensure that you will have finished product that does not contain mold and mildew spores from fungal afflictions, as well as mitigating the urge that some growers feel to employ illegal chemical pesticides when faced with a mite infestation or powdery mildew outbreak.

On the other hand, plants that are susceptible to pests and pathogens are a nightmare for a commercial operation. They act as vectors and can foster severe infestations. They also dictate the entire course of your employees’ days, as well-run facilities must observe workflow protocols in cases of pest outbreaks to mitigate cross-contamination between different garden areas. Infestations caused by susceptible cultivars can lead growers to use illegal chemical pesticides, as it is very difficult to get rid of an infestation once it takes hold. In some states, product with either mildew spores or pesticide residues means that batches will have to be destroyed – or recalled if they make it to market – doing drastic damage to the cultivator’s reputation and business. Most states without such quality control screenings in place are currently moving to implement them.

To be clear, I am not saying that resistant varieties will solve all pest problems. They must be combined with a well-founded, comprehensive IPM program, which involves cleanliness protocols, workflow guidelines, strong environmental controls, and intelligent facility design, among other considerations. Still, experienced agricultural professionals will tell you that selecting resistant varieties is the cornerstone of an effective IPM program. Choosing to grow cultivars that are susceptible to pests will always result in problems, no matter how well you have your other bases covered.

  1. Suitability of Cultivar Characteristics to Grow Site & Method

The thousands of existing cannabis cultivars vary in myriad ways. Some grow extremely tall, while others are short and squat. Some take up to 90 days of flowering time to reach full maturity, while others can be harvested in as few as 55 days with no depreciation in yield or potency. These considerations must be taken in mind when selecting which genetics are best for your operation.

For example, the indoor grower who is attempting to achieve 5 or 6 harvests per year should not grow cultivars that take upwards of 75 days of flower time to reach harvest readiness. Additionally, plants that reach great heights can present various difficulties indoors. In contrast, outdoor farmers do not have height restrictions, but plants that are too tall – and some plants can reach upwards of 15 feet tall outside – could become unmanageable for workers, resulting in increased labor hours for lower yields of less desirable product.

Therein lies my rationale for ranking the suitability of a cultivar’s characteristics above even yield; attempting to cultivate genetics that do not fit with one’s site or facility, as well as methods and approaches, will almost inevitably result in decreased yields, increased costs (primarily in labor, one of the largest expenses of any cultivation operation), or both. It is much easier to swap in an alternate cultivar than it is to refashion one’s entire cultivation site, facility, infrastructure, Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs), and employee training programs.

  1. Yield

There is limited space in a cultivation facility and it must be devoted to plants that will return the investment of labor, fertilizers, soil, water, electricity (if indoors), and other costs. While I have ranked this consideration third, the above points illustrate that yield is intertwined with the first two criteria. Yield can be negatively affected by a cultivar that does not match one’s growing methods. Pest problems will also lower the yields of afflicted plants, in addition to the possibility of having to outright destroy product made unfit for sale by bugs or molds. However, keeping a pest-susceptible cultivar that does not fit your cultivation methodologies just because it yields well is clearly not advisable, especially when there are numerous high-yielding cultivars out there that also fulfill the above criteria. In other words, to consider yield in isolation, as was done frequently in the past when formal quality control standards were absent, would be a mistake.

One important note concerning yield: Sometimes a lighter touch can elevate the performance of a cultivar that is struggling to attain respectable weight. Before scrapping an otherwise desirable cultivar, try lowering fertilization rates or decreasing light intensity. I have observed a cultivar that was struggling to achieve good yields blossom into one that consistently produced over double what it had previously after its fertilization was cut by more than half and light intensity during flowering was reduced by about 40%. This instance illustrates the importance of rigorously collecting and examining data on cultivar performance relative to fertilization, light management, flowering time, and other factors. Always base decisions on hard numbers collected over the course of multiple harvests, rather than casual, undocumented observations.

  1. “Quality”

As noted, quality can mean different things depending on one’s market and intended end product. If cannabis is being grown entirely for extraction purposes, the appearance of the flower itself will not matter in the same way that it does for the grower that is wholesaling trimmed buds to dispensaries. On a similar note, THC test results in excess of 25% will likely make that product a hot commodity among adult-use consumers, but might not mean much to the medical cannabis cultivator that is supplying patients in need of more balanced THC to CBD ratios. As a legal industry, cannabis is still in its infancy; widespread, agreed-upon standards of quality are not yet fully established. One must always examine his or her market and select cultivars that will be in demand amongst one’s current or projected distribution network.

With that said, one thing that many consumers desire, but which runs counter to much of what has been said here, is variety. As a commercial cultivator, there are a few ways to deal with this particular demand while also running an efficient operation consisting of only a few pest-resistant, suitable, and high-yielding cultivars. First, one could market his or herself as a “small-batch” cultivator, who only grows a handful of cultivars, but always produces highly desirable product that is pest and pesticide-free, while also achieving robust yields of dense, resinous, immaculate flowers. In this case, it would fall to the dispensary’s buyers to ensure that a sufficient variety was on the shelves at any one time, but they would know to come to you whenever they needed to stock the particular cultivars that you reliably produce. Second, one could identify a number of viable genetics according to the criteria laid out above, but not grow all of them for production simultaneously. Instead, they could be rotated throughout the year, thereby periodically providing new products and experiences for consumers looking for variety.

My final piece of advice, which is not mutually exclusive to the above, is to emphasize the fact that one’s product is grown cleanly and without illegal pesticides. That stance will make your product more desirable to consumers, who are beginning to see that large segments of the industry are dependent on such chemicals, which can potentially be very harmful. While cannabis cannot at this time be certified organic due to its federal illegality, there are third-party certifications that are approving grow operations according to organic guidelines, such as Clean Green and Certified Kind. In Colorado, the Organic Cannabis Association has recently launched its “Pesticide Free” certification, which should help consumers gain some clarity in a market in which the terms “organic” and “natural” are tossed around frequently with little, if anything, to back up those assertions.

Running a highly efficient, productive commercial cultivation operation is much more achievable when a limited number of high-performing cultivars are being grown. As the industry becomes more tightly regulated, product contaminated by microbes, mold, and pesticide residues will fail required screenings, making it of paramount importance to select those varieties that will pass muster and actually make it onto a dispensary shelf. However, it is admittedly difficult to balance the demands of the market – which generally calls for variety – with the demands of your cultivation site or facility, which will be more profitable with a small stable of elite genetics, rather than the dozens of cultivars that I was faced with when I walked into my first commercial cannabis garden. Objectively evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of the cultivars in your possession based on the above criteria, while also marketing your product so that it meets the demands of your particular market, will go a long way in setting up your cultivation operation for long-term success.

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