In temperate growing regions, time is quickly running out to source hemp seeds for the coming growing season. Based on our experience in the field advising farmers across the country, we at Blake Industries have come to believe that selecting the right genetics is one of the main drivers of success in a hemp cultivation operation. Choosing cultivars that meet both the needs of your specific growing conditions AND the needs of the market is the key to a profitable year. Above all else, choosing genetics that have high compliance potential is absolutely critical.
Like everything in the nascent hemp industry though, the genetics landscape is changing fast. Given the incredible rate of change, it can be very difficult to stay up to date on the genetics that are available. Meanwhile, there is never a perfect answer in choosing the right genetics; every option comes with tradeoffs to be considered. In choosing a cultivar strictly for compliance, for instance, you run the risk of producing a crop which doesn’t have a cannabinoid profile in high demand among extractors or the manufacturers of the end-use consumer products they serve. You may also find a cultivar that is well-suited for your growing conditions, but for which there is little record of how it has performed in terms of compliance.
However, you can weigh these tradeoffs if you focus on the right factors and have the information you need, which reputable seed vendors should be ready and willing to provide. We will share here what we believe are the three key factors in genetic selection, and what you should expect from a vendor who truly has your best interest at heart.
Top Considerations in Choosing the Right Genetics
Compliance, Compliance, Compliance.
You likely know how much the regulatory landscape has changed since last year’s post-prohibition green rush. Federal rules remain in flux after the USDA backtracked on potency testing requirements amid industry backlash, and many states have opted to operate for one more year under the regulations that governed their pilot programs. Those rules vary from state to state, and some, such as Oregon, have recently instituted changes to potency testing requirements. All that means it’s now more important than ever to find genetics which have a high potential to achieve compliance.
Unfortunately, there is no lab test that can be performed on seeds that can predict with 100 percent certainty what the actual potency of your crop will be; although the key driver of cannabinoid profile is genetics, the ultimate outcome is based on many factors beyond just that, including the fertility program employed, stress in the field, and the timing of the harvest.
You can however ask a lot of questions about the past performance of available seed offerings to get an idea of what range of outcomes you might expect. You should grill seed vendors about how their customers’ crop fared last year — what was the germination rate and the feminization rate, what was their yield like, and how potent was their harvested material? You can also ask vendors if they can provide any testimonials or references from farmers they have provided seed to in previous growing seasons. Although many cultivars are brand-new to the market, you can still get a general sense of whether a particular provider has had good success with producing compliant seed.
The market for hemp flower/biomass and products derived from hemp has swung widely since the Farm Bill officially ended hemp prohibition. Last year’s record production has left the market awash with plant material and extracts of both low and high quality across all phases of the value chain. With plenty of high-CBD material available, farmers are going to have to begin to consider genetics which can differentiate their crops from the rest.
For instance, some extractors and consumers are beginning to demand a wider spectrum of cannabinoids and beneficial compounds, and the smokable flower market is still emerging as a major opportunity for hemp farmers. Knowing your target market before you choose your genetics is a major advantage here; if you want to grow for the smokable market, there are many cultivars that are better suited for that type of production. Likewise, if you are going to target the full or wide spectrum extraction market, you can choose genetics accordingly.
However, if you pursue genetics that are too novel, you run the risk of running out ahead of consumer demand. We are seeing this somewhat in the significant uptick in demand for CBG dominant cultivars. These cultivars tend to have a higher potential for compliance, and are being sold by many observers as the next big trend in consumer products, so naturally farmers are gravitating towards those varieties. However, we have yet to see proof of whether there is high demand for consumer products which feature CBG. In fact, there is still a great deal of confusion about CBD among consumers, and there is no indication that the average customer has a sophisticated enough understanding to demand any other specific cannabinoids.
In most ag sectors, growing conditions would top the list of considerations in the selection of genetics. The fact that it ranks third on our list highlights how unique the hemp industry is, with its unique compliance requirements and market landscape.
The climate and soil types in your region are of course going to be a deciding factor in your selection of genetics. Some cultivars are naturally better-suited for warmer regions and others for colder temperatures; many of these differences in acclimation can be traced all the way back to the original cannabis cultivars that emerged in either cold, dry mountainous regions or from more tropical areas along the equator. At this early point in the industry’s growth, there is still little data available on the performance of individual cultivars across climates. Some state pilot programs have been collecting limited information on the topic but many have not. For now, we have to rely on whatever scant data has been released by state agriculture agencies and universities, and lean on the experience of our fellow farmers and industry partners. A knowledgeable seed vendor should be able to speak to the genetic lineage of their seed offerings and discuss how it has performed under different conditions.
There are also site-specific growing conditions that could impact your seed decisions. The topography of your field might leave it exposed to wind, for example, and a cultivar known to produce short, bushy plants that could be less susceptible to wind damage. On the other hand, if your field has low-lying spots that tend to collect runoff, a short bushy plant might be more prone to develop mold due to the density of the leaves and flowers, and the proximity to moist ground.
Who Can You Trust?
At a bare minimum, seed vendors should be expected to provide the results of lab testing for feminization rate, germination rate, and potency levels. Currently this is the only hard data farmers have available to them to assist in the selection of genetics. While these are important factors in the decision making process, we feel the considerations we discussed here — compliance, market demand, and growing conditions, are more likely to influence the success of your season. In the absence of available data, who can farmers trust to provide the information they need to weigh these considerations?
As we mentioned earlier, some state agencies and universities have released limited data from pilot programs and experimental farms. That research is a great place to start, but there is precious little available. Another good resource is speaking with your fellow farmers — if you are looking to connect with other producers in your region, there may be a trade association in your area, or you may even be able start your own chapter of a national group if one does not already exist.
Reputable seed vendors can also be a valuable source of this kind of information. However, it remains difficult to find trustworthy partners in this industry. Again you can reach out to your fellow farmers for referrals, and you can also do your own vetting. Here are some of the signs that indicate you are working with a trustworthy vendor:
A reputable vendor should:
- Know who produced the seed, how experienced the seed producer is, and what kind of production/processing methods they employed — if the vendor can’t (or just won’t) tell you where the seed came from, how can they know anything about how it might perform?
- Be ready and willing to provide lab test results, and provide valid contact information for the lab so the testing can be verified — they should also acknowledge the limitations of lab testing and explain what it CAN’T tell you.
- Be able to provide some sort of documentation of seed producers’ past performance — if not hard data on field trials, at least testimonials from past customers and possibly references you can speak with directly.
- ASK YOU QUESTIONS about your farm and what your goals are for marketing your crop — if they don’t bother to ask, you could take it as a sign that they aren’t really too concerned about whether or not you have a successful season.
Blake Industries has access to a wide range of hemp genetics from a variety of providers, and our team is more than happy to discuss any and all of the selection considerations we outlined here. We can also help you evaluate offerings from other seed vendors to determine which would be the best fit for your operation — our main goal is to help farmers maximize both their yields and the marketability of their crops.
Blake Industries’ insights are drawn from our experience advising hemp growers operating at every scale, across every productive hemp region in the U.S. Our team of industry analysts leverages that in-the-field experience to provide market analysis that is informed by observed conditions. Blake Industries cannot guarantee that these observations apply in every area or every situation.