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The Curious Complexity of Growing a Cannabis Strain

What is the hardest thing about your job?

For many of us, it’s annoyingly busy work, scolding subordinate employees or meeting our boss. But for one lucky Alex Garcia, head of distribution at SF Cultivators, the hardest part of his job is smoking a ton of weed until he finds a variety that’s perfect for him and his colleagues. Also known as ‘pheno-hunting’, this process is the key to what makes an experienced grower different from a novice, and what sets SF Cultivators apart from the rest.

“It’s hard to pick your favorite kids,” says Garcia, plucky about the process, often focusing on weeding out the less-than-perfect contenders. SF Cultivators’ expert team of less than ten people smoke dozens of joints and take pages of notes during the pheno hunting process, monitoring their different impressions of the taste, smell and effect of each in a haze of smoke. Then they must kill the unwanted so as not to take up a coveted space in their small but mighty breeding facility in Bayview. “Now we’re kind of maximizing our building,” he says.

“Pheno” is short for “phenotype”, which describes plants with the same strain genetics, but expressing slightly different characteristics. For example, expert growers like Garcia and his colleagues are essentially experts at picking the best from dozens of nearly identical plants. Breeders, responsible for creating and cultivating the exotic strains that pop up on pharmacy shelves, operate in an environment of sophisticated technical expertise. tastes. Talking to someone can sometimes feel like talking to a living, breathing encyclopedia of cannabis.

For that reason, the process of creating a cannabis strain – and growing it in such a way that the genetics are properly represented – can be very technical. For example, Garcia emphasizes that SF Cultivators use LED lighting instead of fluorescent, HID or LEC lamps used for other crops. LED lights can be more difficult to install due to their high intensity and are more expensive than their competitors. However, LEDs also emit a wider spectrum of light than their competitors, meaning they mimic the sun better and produce a better product. To change the type of light used in a grow, indoor growers need to change the height at which lights are hung, adjust temperature control devices, recalculate electricity costs (and how many lights they can even power on California’s weak grid), and adjust accordingly. the humidity in the room.

According to Garcia, LEDs are the “next-gen” light and SF Cultivators led the way when they installed LEDs in their first facility. “If you start now, you’re looking at six months to screw it up,” he says.

Plus, it’s getting harder and harder to create a strain that stands out in an oversaturated market. SF Cultivators did just that earlier this year with their strain Pigeon Pot Pie, a collaboration with San Francisco streetwear brand Dirty Pigeon (a brand also run by Ron Perez, SF Cultivator’s Head of Cultivator). The strain generated a lot of buzz at local shops due to its high terpene profile and color, which happens to resemble the strangely beautiful purple and green-spotted underbelly of the city’s feathered rats.

Pigeon Pot Pie. (Photo: Alex Garcia)

Strains are technically developed by breeders and seed banks from which many growers subsequently obtain seeds, as is the case with SF Cultivators. This is because the breeding process itself is messy and has the power to ruin an entire facility’s crop. Pollen sacs that grow on male plants burst open, scattering tiny bits of pollen through the air until they land on female plants. These female plants then become host to hundreds of seeds, each with a unique phenotype. Basically pollen from a single male plant can travel up to 7.5 miles, tons of flowering female plants turn into seed makers – a disastrous outcome for anyone growing cannabis plants for consumption (that’s right, men ruin everything).

But once a grower has those seeds, the pheno hunt can begin. Each seed must be grown into a full-sized plant, the flowers of which are then harvested and cured in a grower’s facilities. The process of growing from seed can be incredibly time consuming, especially as the light setup and nutrients most optimal for the new strain have not yet been determined at this stage, although the success of a strain in the market will be determined by both the genetics as the grower’s ability to grow. The cycle of growing, smoking and noting the different characteristics of a new strain can take eight to nine months alone, and yet the cycle is often repeated several times until everyone agrees on the best phenotype to sell. The entire pheno hunt for a single species can take more than a year.

“You experience all kinds of things, such as: how does this plant grow? What is the structure of the plant? How are the roots? What is the resistance to microbiota? Pests?” he says. The list of things to consider also grows as recreational users dial in their tastes. While SF Cultivators take pride in every strain they produce, they are often caught between the demands of the market and their own personal preferences. The most common example occurs when a bud’s test results for THC, CBD, other cannabinoids, and terpenes are the deciding factor.

“Because you have so many new consumers, they want to define their value propositions,” Garcia says. When both test percentages are displayed on a cannabis product, as required by California regulations, customers often use the tested percentages and price tag to decide which strain is the best value for money. But just as 190-proof Everclear isn’t the “best” alcohol, cannabis that tests high for THC isn’t necessarily premium.

Garcia says this misconception about testing “was a big deal for us in the beginning, where we’d have this super high quality flower, strains you’ve never heard of that were tested in the teens or low 20s.” Now the local reputation of the company gives them more flexibility to rely more on their own taste than on percentages set by a machine.

The point of buying weed from a great artisan grower is that the customer is purchasing a small batch product made with passion and care. Behind the purchase is a person with decision-making power and an abundance of knowledge. A grower is similar to a wine sommelier in that sense – we rely more on their taste to determine quality than what’s on the label. Many cannabis professionals are disappointed with the focus on THC percentages because they see it not only as an obstacle to getting their product on the shelves, but also as destroying part of the culture.

However, SF Cultivators is a new brand with a love for this human-powered heritage. Seven full-time employees, each with multiple hats, collectively decide what the best possible flower is for them to market. Fortunately, their picks are consistently powerful, flavorful, trichome-covered and compact. SF Cultivators have a taste you can rely on.



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