The Cannabis Challenge That’s Got Everyone Guessing…
Written by Allison Edrington
A mystery strain has taken root in dozens of farms across Northern California. Quietly growing alongside the rest of the cannabis crops, farmers have high expectations but don’t know what to expect as these unknown plants begin to flourish. How much space will they need? How thirsty will they be? What colors will the final flower have? Will it sell?
“That’s all part of the Grow-Off Competition — a no-judge, all-skill cannabis challenge,” says co-founder Jake Browne. The Grow-Off began in Colorado in 2016, and now they’re hosting their second California competition. Browne says they’ve given out nearly $50,000 in cash prizes since the competition’s inception, so the stakes are real.
“The mystery strain is part of the challenge. You need a breadth of experience,” Browne asserts. “You can’t just go to a message board and get a tip on what they think it should be. They need to understand how the plant works and diagnose based on past experience.”
There’s no public event, but you can see how competitors are doing if you search #thegrowoff on Instagram. Farmers will post their progress throughout the season (and you can add to the rampant speculation)!
How The Competition Works
All farmers who signed up received the same two cannabis plants. Competitors don’t know what they’re growing, but each day of the season reveals a little more. Lucienne Cabeen, co-founder of Forever Honeydew Farm and competitor in the NorCal Grow-Off, opines that not knowing is part of the fun for her and co-founder Paul Cabeen.
“We’re really curious to know how it’s going to turn out,” Cabeen chimes. “When the time comes, we’ll be making clones. It’s exciting; it’s a mystery.” What she does know is how the Grow-Off clones are doing on their family farm in Humboldt County. “We treat them with a lot of love, and they love it on our farm.”
When the season is done, Browne says every Grow-Off entry has a full lab analysis. Co-founder of Medicine Wheel Farm, Sara Trapkus, admits she’s excited to see not only how their mystery clones grow but also how their final flower will stack up against the rest of the competitors. “The different climates and cultivation methods will change each farmer’s harvest, even though they’re all growing the same strain,” Trapkus says.
“I have a lot of interest in understanding how strains act differently, depending on where they’re grown and how they’re grown,” Trapkus enthuses. “I felt like participating in this competition would allow us to start that conversation and look at some data.”
Whoever grows the flower with the highest total cannabinoids and highest total terpenes will become the new Grow-Off winner. In simple terms, cannabinoids are the compounds like THC and CBD that can provide relief for patients. Terpenes are what give cannabis flowers (and every other plant) their aroma and may impact how cannabinoids are absorbed by the body.
Wonderland Nursery in Garberville worked with the Grow-Off competition to provide this year’s genetics to participants. Founder and Cultivation Director Kevin Jodrey said the growers will have to be flexible throughout the season if they want to take home the prize.
“What you’ll really find out is what production methodologies work better — period,” says Jodrey.
Where the farmer grows will also impact the kind of flower they harvest and maybe the prize they can win, Jodrey explains. “The highest cannabinoids will come from highest, dry places and the highest terps will come from places that are a little more moist. It doesn’t favor anyone, because they’re both a bit different in how they get driven.”
How Grows It?
Browne says farmers are a few months into the NorCal competition. Farmers should now have plants out of nurseries and into gardens but, beyond that, the cultivation practices vary widely among competitors, he suggests. Some farmers grow veganically (only vegan inputs), some use regenerative farming, and at least one is growing in an old 7-11, under eight-foot ceilings.
“We have this whole farm-to-table movement going on in the restaurant industry but in cannabis, so few people know who their growers are,” Browne says. “That makes sense. For many years, it was important that people not have their identity out there, because they didn’t want to be behind bars. We can provide them a platform to grow openly and have a chance to see what their peers are doing as well.”
Just talking with a few of the competitors, there were already clear differences. At Forever Honeydew Farms, Lucienne Cabeen said her family works as a team to farm in an ecological way. From solar panels to natural inputs, she says ecological farming is the only way to go, because “you have to take care of your environment.” Like many of their competitors, they’re using light deprivation to grow. It’s a method that manipulates the light cycle of the plant to increase growing speed. The Cabeens’ plant is in hoop houses that they cover with tarps.
“This is our lifestyle. Work and life come together here. It’s a magical place to live,” Cabeen says. “It’s close enough to the ocean, but not too close. Really sunny with nice, cool air and that’s perfect for the plants.”
Over at Medicine Wheel Farm, Trapkus says they take a holistic approach to growing that incorporates methods from several practices for building soil and feeding plants. Their Grow-Off clones are in planted bags like the rest of their crop. Trapkus tells us that co-founder Sean O’Connor uses a rainwater catchment system, solar exhaust fans and compost tea to keep their footprint small and their plants happy.
“We brew our own compost tea, and the amendments we add to our water are biologically alive, so we’re seeding the soil and plant with all the beneficial organisms to help strengthen the overall health of the plant,” Trapkus informs us. “Because we live on the coast, the way we water and the way we feed is minimal. Because we have to watch our moisture content, we microdose the plant, lightly feeding them a little bit with every watering.”
This coastal spot is more than just a farm to Trapkus and O’Connor. All three of their children were born there and still live there, “I feel really blessed that we get to spend time together, to be together and share meals together.”
Further south, in Mendocino County, the Redwood Remedies team have taken a more high-tech approach with a focus on organic practices. Director of Operations Elexa Richard says they brought the Grow-Off competition clones into their fully automated, all-season greenhouse using HID lighting and natural sunlight. So far, the mystery plants are thriving.
Richard confirms that Redwood Remedies is one of the only Clean Green Certified farmers in the Grow-Off this year. “It will be interesting to see how the implementation of our incredibly organic methods will shape up against other people’s methods.”
Owner Operator Derek Gambrel of Redwood Remedies has been raising the Grow-Off clones firsthand. He is a Purdue graduate of horticulture production and marketing with a background in forestry seedling production. He didn’t have any solid guesses on what the strain might be, but there are some indicators as to parts of its heritage.
The plant is very symmetrical and rounded in “almost a globular or Christmas tree kind of structure,” he says. He elaborates by stating that, as it grows, it’s forcing a lot of laterals and wants to go as wide as it is tall, which makes him think it has a heavy indica growth pattern. But beyond that, the truth of its
genetics is anyone’s guess.
What strain do you think it is? Follow the progress of farmers,
and make your own guesses on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram
@thegrowoff or #thegrowoff.