By: Patrick Hughes, Director of Genetics & Nursery
From Clone to Crop – Building a Better Hemp Harvest Through Genetic Science
The holy grail for hemp cultivation is genetic uniformity. One of the biggest risks in hemp cultivation is that of a crop “going hot,” rising above the acceptable level of THC (less than 0.3% total THC is the current standard of Georgia). A successful CBD hemp grow must properly mitigate this risk.
Clones Vs. Seeds Part 1 – The Gene Factor
Many seeds salesmen tout that their variety won’t go hot. However, most seeds sold in the marketplace have not been stabilized through the careful line breeding, inbreeding, and back breeding necessary to create vigor AND consistency. Our young industry has been eager to rush to the lucrative marketplace with seeds that have catchy names and eye-popping profiles, but many of these breedings are in the initial stages of stabilization because the time was not taken to continue the line breed processing to create the consistency necessary to fully mitigate the risk of testing in a total THC environment below the 0.3% threshold. The industry has been moving so fast that the breeders didn’t have the time to create true stability.
When starting from seeds produced in this manner, you are guaranteed to have less uniformity than starting from a clone. Consequently, when the state agency in charge of testing takes a randomized sample of your plants from a dozen plants in your field to determine if your crop is to be harvested or destroyed, can you afford to have an inconsistent crop in those few plants sampled? As growers, we have an entire season of sweat, labor, and dollars being measured in a handful of plants. This is not a variable we should leave to chance.
Clones Vs. Seeds Part 2 – Harvest Consistency
Another benefit to planting clones over seeds is harvest dates. When you plant clones, you are able to plan harvest dates based on cannabinoid production from a single phenotype. With a seed crop, the concept of Mendel’s Law of Segregation says that you are going to have a minimum of four different phenotypes expressed. This means tracking and tracing the climb in total TCH production of four different cannabinoid profiles and four different phenotypes – four different types of the same variety – in the same field. It all adds up to an uncertainty factor of four. You may even end up with four different harvest dates in the same field with the same variety, which is a nifty trick to try and pull off logistically.
I have seen this firsthand; genetics are sold as the same plant and same seed, but when the farmer plants 20 acres, a quarter of the field will have auto-flower tendencies that were never fully bred out of the genetic line.
The bottom line with buying seeds is that genetic uniformity is too important to leave to chance. The risks are great, and the nascent seed industry is still in the process of breeding a reliably consistent product.
So, if not seed, then what? Let’s talk about Clones.
Step 1: Phenotype Hunting
The process of cloning begins with an exhaustive search for good mother stock. This stock could be gathered from other gene pools or bred internally from a breeding program. Phenotypes are tested in multiple environments for desired traits and selections are made accordingly. Once the top producers with the desired traits are identified, we have our Mother.
Step 2: Mother Plants
With our Mother selected, we clone that plant and create our stock of mother plants, which are exact genetic replicas of the first plant cloned. This stock of mother plants is the basis for all of our production, delivering a stock of a specific variety for the next season. As you’d expect, we use exact genetic replicas to ensure genetic uniformity in the field, which makes for precise testing and harvest times with a consistent cannabinoid profile. Our mother plants are fed a high-quality mix of proven feeds we’ve been using for over 10 years in cannabis production of clones. This mix makes sure to increase rooting hormones with as little stress as possible to the mother plant in cloning season. Once our mother stock is ready to go, we begin the cloning process on those plants.
Step 3: Bring on the Clones
The first step is proper pruning of our mothers to produce the optimum number of cuts per plant. Once they’re ready, cutting on the mothers begins. This involves taking new shoot growth between 3-4” long. These cuts are trimmed, the stems are angle cut, dipped in rooting gel, and then carefully placed in 72 count soil trays. Our specialized fertigation schedule keeps our mother stock healthy and able to regenerate and have a continual and consistent cut schedule to produce our target numbers.
Step 4: Sun Hardening
Once the new clones have 3-5” of top growth and the proper root development, we move them to a sunshade area for sun hardening. Sun hardening is an important process in prepping clones for the field. We sun harden and stress the plant to the optimum levels so that the new clones are ready to let their roots explode into the rich soil and suck the nutrients out of our prepared fields. The sun hardening process is a system we’ve really dialed in over the years and was one of the key reasons for SCA’s success in the 2019 growing season – a system we look to rely on to replicate success in the coming 2020 season.
Step 5: Clones Planting
Once sun hardened, the genetically uniform clones are ready to be planted. Each variety has an ideal planting, testing, and harvest date. Because of the data we have collected on cannabinoid production of each cloned variety, we know precisely when to begin testing, and when we will need to harvest. This is where the consistency of clones really shines. A few days late on testing could lead to a destroyed crop, so having the genetic uniformity and data on that variety gives us great confidence in creating a safe and profitable harvest.
Cloning with Confidence
Last year my brother and I (and our incredible team of 24 cultivation pros) produced 1.2 million clones. We clone our plants in 72-cell 10”x20” trays under a mist system we’ve designed specifically for optimizing root growth. The greenhouses are all custom systems put together by our greenhouse manager, Philip Wolfe, who has spent thousands of hours propagating nearly two million clones. His extensive knowledge and experience have helped us create the ideal environment in our newly expanded greenhouse facility – helping to ensure the 2020 season delivers a consistent crop of fast-rooting, healthy clones.
Bottom Line: Clones Are the Foundation for the Future of Hemp
This intensive clone selection and cultivation takes a great deal of work, but the data generated and the lessons learned along the way make the effort more than worthwhile. We’ve built a treasure trove of information, experience, and helpful knowledge that we can share with other farmers to give them a real advantage and a secure entry into this new industry. We are here to give our farmers a great start by providing provenly consistent plants that will grow and thrive in our great state of Georgia. These plants also come with the unyielding support of the entire Second Century Ag team, ensuring that this young industry is here to stay. Our genetics and cloning operations are the key to bringing that promise to life – they’re literally sprouting the future of hemp in our home state.