Science of growing champion buds

During a recent visit to Alter Farms just outside of Grants Pass, a late summer rain began to fall lightly, cooling the day and intensifying the pungent aroma of cannabis flowering in the field. I was on a mission to meet a few particular cannabis plants at the farm, and I didn’t mind getting a bit wet in order for introductions to be made.

Last May, Alter Farms was honored at the fourth annual Cultivation Classic in Portland for three of its sun-grown strains. The company, headed by Cody Alter, Jodi Haines and Jason Rambo, took home first place in the Sungrown Type 1 (THC) category for a strain called Purple Wildfire, as well as the top prize in the Outstanding Terpenes: Diversity category for a strain called Fire Runner. In the Sungrown Type 2 (mixed ratio THC/CBD) category, Alter Farms took home the bronze for its Pineapple Thai CBD cultivar.

Jason Rambo and Cody Alter tend to their plants.
Photo by Jamie Lusch

 

It was the third time cannabis grown at Alter Farms has won top prizes at the Cultivation Classic, which hosted its inaugural event four years ago to pay tribute to organically grown weed in Oregon, and those who cultivate it.

In 2016, the year Alter Farms harvested its first recreational crop, the company won first place in the THC Outdoor category with Purple Hindu Kush. Then in 2017, a cultivar called Cherry Wine earned first place in the CBD Outdoor Category.

“We’re deeply honored and thankful that our cultivar selections were so well received by the judges,” Alter said. “It’s especially gratifying to win at the Cultivation Classic when in the company of so many great growers.”

Alter, who grew up gardening and farming in Southern Oregon, said the Cultivation Classic competitions help move the cannabis industry forward by recognizing the craft and the science behind breeding and growing high-quality cultivars. In turn, cannabis consumers are beginning to ask new questions when they visit dispensaries: “What are the dominant terpenes?” and “Who are the growers and what are their growing practices?”

Jody Haines works with a plant at Alter Farms in Grants Pass.
Photo by Jamie Lusch

 

Terpenes are organic compounds produced by plants to ward off predators and attract pollinators. Terpenes are the primary component of essential oils. Some plants, like conifers and cannabis, produce a lot of terpenes. Depending on the cultivar, cannabis plants produce different combinations of terpenes in the flower resin that work together with cannabinoids (THC and CBD) to give each strain its unique fragrance, taste and effects.

In addition, terps influence how consumers process cannabinoids by interacting with receptors in the body — this is called the entourage effect. The most prevalent terpene in cannabis is myrcene, which gives off an earthy scent and enhances absorption of cannabinoids into the bloodstream.

However, cannabis strains produce many other terpenes that not only affect the recreational user’s experience, but also influence how medicinal users are able to process cannabinoids for different mental and physical ailments. For example, limonene has a citrusy aroma and increases the level of serotonin in the body, which affects mood, cognition and memory. Caryophyllene is a spicy, peppery terp that reduces anxiety and inflammation.

Alter Farms’ Fire Runner, the strain that won first place for terpene diversity at the 2019 Cultivation Classic, as well as the People’s Choice Award at the Oregon Growers Cup in 2018, tested for 21 terpenes at Cascadia Labs in Oregon. The dominant terpenes in Fire Runner were terpinolene, a-pinene, limonene and b-pinene.

Terpene analysis is just one aspect of technological innovations that have progressed the cannabis industry and, increasingly, its market. New methods in genetic and chemical analysis allow cannabis breeders to work with labs to thoroughly map out the characteristics, called phenotypes, of different strains. Breeders can also keep track of the genetic ancestry of different strains by adding to a comprehensive genetic database, an important step toward eliminating confusion over cultivars with the same name and for protecting heirloom varieties.

Purple Wildfire
courtesy photo

 

In a given season, Alter Farms grows about 25 different cannabis varieties for sale to dispensaries in Oregon (including Redwood Cannabis in Grants Pass and River City Retail in Merlin); however, Alter said, the company holds the genetics for more than 80 cloned varieties and over 300 seed crosses. One of his goals is to expand research and development at the farm in pursuit of the “Holy Grail” of exciting new hybrids and phenotypes.

An important component of the R&D program at Alter Farms is utilizing complex soil analysis to inform their practices. As with viticulture and winemaking, the characteristics of soil play a critical role in the terroir of cannabis crops, combined with climate, topography and several other environmental factors to infuse the flower with a unique sense of place. Terroir is what high-quality craft cannabis in Southern Oregon is all about.

In fact, Alter Farms has been working with Portland State University geologist John Bershaw since 2017 to study the terpene/cannabinoid profiles of a single clonal variety grown in five different soils found in Southern Oregon.

Soil testing is particularly important for sustainability-minded growers like those at Alter Farms, who are dedicated to continually replenishing their native sandy loam and minimizing their impact on the environment.

Marijuana is processed at Alter Farms in Grants Pass. The farm won several awards at the annual Cultivation Classic in Portland.

 

You won’t find heavy machinery or commercial fertilizers and pesticides at Alter Farms. What you will find are folks working lovingly with the land, and cover crops of peas, mustard or buckwheat growing alongside cannabis that continually add organic matter and micro-organisms to build healthy soil. If you look closely, you’ll also see lady beetles and other beneficial insects happily providing natural pest control.

By the time I was ending my visit to Alter Farms, the rain had stopped and the sun was beginning to poke through the clouds. Everything smelled fresh, which matched my new perspective of what it means to consciously cultivate award-winning cannabis in today’s evolving marketplace. For Alter Farms, the ingredients for success are sun, water, soil — and science.

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