A case for hemp clones By Abby McGarry

For the greatest ability to succeed, hemp growers need to ensure they are starting out with good, quality genetics.

Royale Botanicals in Larkspur, Colorado, dedicates its industrial hemp cultivation facility to mother stock and 100% pesticide free, non-GMO clone production, offering the scale of growing several hundred thousand clones every week.

At the helm of this business is Aaron Van Wingerden, a 30-year industry veteran who also started an ornamentals operation, Dutch Heritage Gardens, with his wife in 2006. In 2014, Colorado changed its laws, allowing cannabis to be grown on agricultural-zoned land, so Van Wingerden built a 100,000-square-foot greenhouse to grow and cultivate recreational marijuana. After three years, Van Wingerden made the choice to get out of the marijuana industry but immediately took what he and his team had learned and applied it to growing hemp.

“We realized very early on that a lot of hemp genetics came from poor marijuana genetics that were bred for indoor growing, so a lot of hemp genetics couldn’t withstand the high winds or sun or rain or hail that we have here in Colorado,” Van Wingerden says. “We immediately began a breeding program for hemp genetics with that reasoning in mind.”

Royale Botanicals’ core business is selling cloned starts to farmers for field-grown CBD production, to greenhouse growers for smokable flower and to small, organic farmers for outdoor smokable flower.

Clones versus feminized seed

Growers have a major choice to make when starting with cannabis: to grow from seed or to grow from clones. Van Wingerden has built his business on clones because he believes they are far superior.

One of the primary advantages of clones is that they are all genetically identical, coming from the same mother stock plant and growing the exact same at the same time. This means a specific harvest time and manageable risk of a compliant crop.

Van Wingerden compares clones to identical twins and feminized seedlings to siblings; siblings may have different eye color, grow to different heights, etc.

Growing from clones creates a final product with uniform performance and a specific harvest window.

“If you use feminized seedlings, 100% you’re going to end up with a couple different phenotypic traits that express themselves differently, either in the color, in the odor or in the bud size,” he says. “Also, you can have the risk of one of the phenotypic expressions from a feminized seedling being low grade marijuana.”

If one of these phenotypic expressions is greater than 0.3% THC, growers run the risk of field destruction. “Here in Colorado, a lot of these inspectors walk out, and they just randomly go cut down 10 or 12 plants in your field. There’s no rhyme or reason to what they’re inspecting; they’re just walking through the field randomly selecting,” Van Wingerden says. “If they happen to select the one phenotypic expression that had a higher rate of THC in it than everybody else in that field, your entire field is burned up and you get a strike on your license.”

Clones also have a 0% chance of being hermaphrodites, meaning zero risk of pollination, unlike feminized seedlings, which are purposely created with hermaphroditic plants. The pollen, which looks like talcum powder, will easily spread everywhere.

“Regardless of how good a breeder is or how great that pollen is, you’re going to have a percentage of your plants from feminized seedlings herm out,” Van Wingerden says. “The problem is you can never tell a hermaphroditic plant from a non-hermaphroditic plant until it’s too late because those pollen jockeys, like we like to call them, stay hidden under the canopy; you’ll never be able to catch them.”

Trialing process

Royale Botanicals tests genetics — both those bred in-house and those from other breeders they work with — for more than two years before introducing something into the market. This extensive research and development (R&D) protocol consists of four stages:

1. Breeding to 100% females,
2. Phenome selection process,
3. Field growing trial, and
4. Tissue culture indexing.

Tissue culture indexing takes six months at Royale Botanicals, creating new mother stock material after selecting the top phenomes.

Once a variety makes it out of the vegetative stage, it moves into the flowering stage in the greenhouse, where samples are sent off for a certificate of analysis (COA). Then, all the winners from the greenhouse are planted into the R&D field in the first week of June to see what they do outdoors.

“Maybe certain cultivars do really, really well, but putting them out into a field where they’re going to be exposed to wind, rain, hail, etc., a lot of the genetics split,” Van Wingerden says. “Then at the very end, usually at the end of September, early October, we harvest the winners, gather a wet weight, and then we dry and cure all these plants as well.”

Certain strains are introduced into the market as greenhouse-specific while others are field grown-specific. Each of these R&D stages also plays a critical role in making sure Royale Botanicals gets index free of viral, bacterial and fungal disease pressures.

“It also allows us to have a bank of these genetics that are stored, so that every year we throw out our old mother stock and start with new elite stock,” Van Wingerden says. “This is really important because what we’re doing is we’re starting with generation one each and every time for the next season on every one of our cultivars.”

Pulling the elite stock every year instead of using a clone from a clone from a clone helps combat genetic drift.

“I think the analogy to use is if you have a petunia plant, and it’s nice and bright red as generation one. If you get a cutting of it from generation five or six, that red is not so vibrant; it looks more like pink. The plant health is not as vigorous. It’s more prone to disease pressures,” Van Wingerden says. “Same goes for our cannabis genetics, too.”

Starting with good, quality genetics is imperative to a successful crop.

Sidebar: Where to begin

Aaron Van Wingerden, owner of Royale Botanicals, works closely with many growers and shares some of the things he helps new customers consider as they are starting out with hemp.

First, what is the ideal time for harvesting in your growing region?

“Once a hemp begins its flowering cycle, it’s about seven to nine weeks until it’s fully finished and needs to be harvested, so if you need to be harvesting by Oct. 1, you want a plant that triggers no later than Aug. 1,” Van Wingerden explains. “Figuring out when you’re going to harvest and starting to do the math backwards on timing is the first thing you need to do.”

Then, what is your plan for harvest — by machine or by hand?

The answer to this question will help farms determine when they should plant their hemp and how many plants they should have per acre.

“Anything 4 foot or lower, you could have much higher success with harvesting by machine, so this means you can plant a little later in the season or pick a genetic that has an earlier trigger time, and it also might mean you plant more plants per acre,” Van Wingerden says. “If you plan to harvest by hand and you’re a smaller farm or you’re in the greenhouse, then maybe you want to plant as big as possible, so you can capture as many pounds per plant as possible.”

The next question is: What is the day length at certain times throughout the growing season in my region?

This is a culmination of the first two questions Van Wingerden asks, but it’s imperative to determining exactly what genetics a farmer should use.

Lastly, what’s the plan for the end product of your hemp once harvested?

“Is it smokable flower bud that needs to be manicured and pretty? That means hand harvesting and hang drying your hemp, so make sure you have the labor and space to accommodate this,” Van Wingerden says. “Are you planning to harvest it as biomass that you’ll sell to an extractor? If so, will the extractor take a combined harvested material, or do you need to use more gentler methods? Will the extractor take the hemp wet right out the field or will you need to dry it first? Is field dry OK or do you need to run it through machine dryers?”

Post-processing is an extensive process, so you need to make sure you have a plan in place before planting your crop. Van Wingerden says he has seen too many farms with beautiful plants ruin them in post-processing because they didn’t have a gameplan.

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