The curious complexities of cultivating a cannabis strain

(Photo via SF Evergreen)

By Veronica Irwin

What’s the most difficult part of your job?

For many of us, it’s irritating busy work, reprimanding subordinate employees, or meetings with our boss. But for a lucky Alex Garcia, head of distribution at SF Cultivators in San Francisco, the hardest part of his job involves smoking a ton of weed until he finds a variety that perfectly suits him and his coworkers’ tastes.

This process, also called “pheno hunting,” is key to what makes an expert cultivator different from a novice, and what sets SF Cultivators apart from the rest.

“It’s hard to pick your favorite kids,” says Garcia, cracking wise about the process, where the emphasis is often placed on weeding out the less-than-perfect contenders.

SF Cultivators’ expert, less-than-ten person team smokes dozens of joints and takes pages upon pages of notes during the pheno hunt process, monitoring their different impressions of the taste, smell, and effect of each in a haze of smoke.

Then they have to kill the undesirables, so as to not take up coveted space in their small-but-mighty growing facility in Bayview. “Now we’re kind of maxing our building out,” he says.

“Pheno” is short for “phenotype,” which describes plants with the same strain genetics but that express slightly different characteristics. Thus, expert cultivators like Garcia and his colleagues are essentially experts at picking the best from dozens of nearly identical plants. Cultivators, who are responsible for creating and growing the exotic strains popping up on dispensary shelves, operate in an environment of finely-tuned technical expertise — for cultivators to stand out, they normally have to have years (if not decades) of experience curating their tastes. Talking to one can sometimes feel like talking to a living, breathing, encyclopedia of cannabis.

For that reason, the process of making a cannabis strain — and growing it in such a way so that it’s genetics are well displayed — can be very technical. Garcia highlights, for example, that SF Cultivators use LED lighting instead of fluorescent, HID, or LEC lights used for other grows.

LED lights, because of their high intensity, can be more difficult to set-up and are more expensive than their competitors. However, LEDs also emit a larger spectrum of light than their competitors, meaning they more closely emulate the sun and yield a better product. To change the kind of light used in a grow, indoor cultivators have to change the height at which the lights are hung, adjust temperature control devices, recalculate the cost of electricity (and how many lights they can even power on California’s weak electricity grid), and readjust the humidity in the room.

LEDs are the “next gen” light according to Garcia, and SF Cultivators were ahead of the curve when they installed LEDs in their first facility. “If you start it now, you’re looking at six months of screwing it up,” he says.

Moreover, making a strain that stands out in an oversaturated market is increasingly difficult. SF Cultivators did that earlier this year with their strain Pigeon Pot Pie, a collaboration with San Francisco streetwear brand Dirty Pigeon (a brand also run by SF Cultivator’s Head of Cultivation, Ron Perez). The strain generated a lot of buzz at local shops for it’s high terpene profile and color, which coincidentally resembles the strangely beautiful purple and green flecked underbelly of the city’s feathered rats.

Strains are technically engineered by breeders and seed banks which many cultivators then get seeds from, 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 sacks which grow on male plants burst and spread tiny bits of pollen through the air until they land on female plants. These female plants then become hosts to hundreds of seeds, each with a unique phenotype. In fact, pollen from a single male plant can travel up to 7.5 miles, turning tons of blooming female plants into seed-makers — a ruinous outcome for anyone growing cannabis plants for consumption (that’s right, men ruin everything).

But once a cultivator has those seeds, the pheno hunt can begin. Each seed has to be grown into a full-sized plant, flowers from which are then harvested and cured at a cultivator’s facilities. The process of growing from seed can be incredibly time consuming, especially because the light setup and nutrients which are most optimal for the new strain are not yet determined at this stage, though a strain’s success on the market will be determined both by genetics and the cultivator’s skill at growing. The cycle of growing, smoking, and noting the various characteristics of a new strain can take eight-to-nine months alone, and yet, the cycle is often repeated multiple times until everyone can agree on the best phenotype to sell. The entire pheno hunt for a single strain can take over a year.

“You’re going through everything, like: how does this plant grow? What is the structure of the plant? How are the roots doing? What is its resistance to microbio? Pests?” he says. The list of things to consider is growing, too, as recreational users dial-in their tastes. Though SF Cultivators is proud of every strain they produce, they can often find themselves trapped between demands of the market and their own personal preferences. The most common example arises when a bud’s test results for THC, CBD, other cannabinoids and terpenes tip the scales.

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

Garcia says that this misconception about testing “was a big issue for us early on, where we would have this super high quality flower that was strains you’ve never heard of that was testing in the teens or low 20s.” Now, the company’s local reputation is lending them more flexibility to trust their own tastes more than percentages determined by a machine.

The very point of buying weed from a great, craft cultivator is that the customer is buying a small-batch product made with passion and care. There’s a human being, with decision-making power and a plethora of knowledge, behind the purchase. A cultivator is similar, in that way, to a wine sommelier — we trust their tastes to determine quality more than what is printed on the label. Many cannabis professionals are disappointed with the focus on THC percentages because they see it as not only an obstacle to getting their product on the shelves, but also as destroying part of the culture.

SF Cultivators, however, are a new brand with a fondness for this people-powered heritage. Seven full-time employees, each wearing multiple hats, decide, collectively, what the best possible flower is for them to put on the market. Luckily, their picks are consistently potent, flavorful, trichome-covered and dense. SF Cultivators have taste you can depend on.

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