It’s time for Canadian home growers, licensed producers, and craft cultivators to put their money where their marijuana is.
American cannabis cultivation competition, the Grow-Off, is heading north in the hopes of shedding light on the unsung backbone of Canada’s cannabis industry: the cultivators.
The contest started in 2016 and has since proliferated throughout legalizing regions in the United States. The competition aims to eliminate subjectivity of traditional “cups” by leveling the playing field for anyone interested in showing off their green thumb.
Founders, former Denver Post cannabis columnist Jake Browne and industry entrepreneur Samantha Taylor, say the Grow-Off aims to promote science over subjectivity, in that entrants all start with genetically identical clones and their results are guaged using certified lab tests.
An Ontario biotech firm caught wind of the work Browne and Taylor were doing in regions like Colorado and California and recently announced it had invested in a Canadian leg of the contest this week.
“We were impressed with how they work with growers across the states to effectively raise the bar with tangible scientific, non-bias proof of concept, as well as educating the community as to the work that goes into cultivation,” says Julien Morris, cofounder and chief product officer of Qualis Cannabis Corporation, on the phone.
“Bringing the event to Canada will be incredibly beneficial to the industry here because a lot of what we see is licensed producers touting the fact that they have the purest or the best, saying they’re the best in Canada…we hope this will help shed some light on that.”
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Not all cultivation is the same—so why are the contests?
Both Browne and Taylor have spent more than a decade working in the cannabis sector and have judged a plethora of cannabis cups, contests, and products. Calling the Grow-Off the “first of its kind”, they say the contest landscape, when it comes to cultivation, is flawed and often fails to highlight the industry’s best.
“The first time I was invited to judge a Cannabis Cup in Amsterdam, about one-third of the products had either mold or mildew issues I would consider so severe I wouldn’t feel safe smoking them,” Browne says to the Straight. The next year, when he tasked with reviewing the edibles category, he was afforded a weekend to consume enough weed to “tranquilize a large horse.”
“When we saw the final judging, it didn’t seem to line up with what myself and other judges thought about the submissions. We’re seeing this real disconnect,” he adds.
Most cultivation competitions in Europe and North America, thus far, charge companies a fee to submit product, then anonymously distribute their products (like dried flower, edibles, and infused topicals) to a series of judges. Then, those individuals are tasked with ranking the products in highly subjective categories—like the strength of the body buzz or prettiness of packaging.
Browne says he often found results of past contests would fail to align with the broad user experience and naturally favour companies with more capital.
Taylor adds another issue with current competitions is the pay-to-play concept: larger investors or sponsors often walking away with the highest accolades because they contributed the most product or money to the event.
“Over and over, we were seeing the biggest booths at a convention win the prize. There seemed to be no rhyme or reason. If you don’t win first, second, or third, you have no idea where you placed,” she says.
Anyone who doesn't walk away with a podium spot usually leaves with no feedback or evidence of contributions to the contest.
Avid fans of cooking shows like “Chopped”—in which all contestants start with the same basket of ingredients—Browne and Taylor set about applying a similar framework to the Grow-Off.
The two say it came to a head in 2016, when the High Times Cannabis Cup was kicked out of Colorado for failing to follow metric guidelines and State laws. With advances in the testing landscape, it meant they could conceptualize a competition that was both legally compliant and impartial.
“Lab testing allows for a potency measure and a terpene, or flavour, measurement. It’s a more objective way to go about judging these products,” says Taylor. “We can also give better feedback to all the growers on where they placed.”
Browne says the event was also inspired by their desire to honour the “heroes” of the cannabis industry—cultivators too often left out of the conversation despite the integral role they play in product quality and innovation.
“We wanted to create an environment where growers can connect with other growers,” he says. “People forget how isolating cultivation is. This is hard work, it is lonely, and it can often be something you can’t share with your friends and family. To be ‘out’ about the fact that they’re growing, compare notes, and talk to people who deal with the same problems they do on a day-in, day-out basis is really special.”
How it works
It starts with a clone adoption ceremony—or “pick-up day”. Applicants meet at one location to receive two genetically identical clones (in case they accidentally kill one) and get a chance to network with event organizers, sponsors, and judges.
Then, they’re off to the races.
Cultivators are alotted between four to six months to grow, dry, and cure their plants. At the end of the process, they submit a 10 gram sample and a set of certified labs results to the judges.
“The lab reports are kind of like our judge and jury. We look at total terpenes, total cannabinoids, and, in certain markets, highest yield from a single plant,” explains Taylor.
And with few restrictions on the grow process, cultivators are encouraged to get creative.
“We have given first place to everything from outdoor regenerative farming to very commercial, production-minded indoor facilities using artificial lighting,” says Browne.
While the Grow-Off started with a focus on the licensed community, the competition now affords home growers a chance to participate.
In places like Southern California, the founders quickly realized the contest could also serve as a platform for micro-growers looking to build resume fodder.
“We thought: What if we could take some of these amazing people who don’t necessarily have a foothold in the industry and help them create that place?” says Browne.
In states like Colorado, with a well-established legal market, the contest attracts a large number of teams from licensed producers wanting to back up their branding promises of being the industry’s “best”.
Browne notes that blending various players doesn’t tend to get in the way of a fair outcome.
“It’s funny because you talk to the little guys and they say: “We don’t have the resources to compete with the mega grows”, but when you talk to the mega grows, they say: “We don’t have the time to put in the attention on one plant”,” he says, laughing.
“We’ve seen people working with a couple thousand square feet manage to take home first place, but also large corporations with tens-of-thousands of square feet win, as well.”
As far as the plants themselves, the clone’s lineage or genetics aren't disclosed until the winners are announced. But what Browne will say is he is always looking for a breeder with a “unicorn”.
“Something that fairs well in a production environment, can thrive in an indoor, greenhouse, or outdoor environment. It [the cultivar] needs to have a certain threshold of potency because ultimately that number drives the markets. And it has to be something that is unique,” he says.
The Grow-Off aims to select genetics not already popular in the market—both to stimulate consumer interest and to provide a new challenge to growers.
As for the Canadian chapter, Morris says Qualis hasn’t yet settled on a licensed producer (LP) for the provision of clones, but they’re in the midst of narrowing down potentials. He notes for a company to be eligable it must be certified by Health Canada.
“We’re looking at their [an LP's] level of community engagement, and certainly people who believe in education and are science-forward,” says Morris.
Giving back to communities
The Grow-Off also maintains a strong focus on charity work, consistently partnering with the international non-profit advocacy group, Students for a Sensible Drug Policy.
“It’s important we support them as they’re cultivating the next round of cannabis advocates in the space,” says Taylor.
“Locally, we also look at the needs of each market and how we can best support individual communities.”
In Colorado, for example, the Grow-Off worked with the Green Team, an organization helping clean-up after 4/20 celebrations. In northern California, it partnered with Freedom Grow, which provides commissary for individuals serving time for non-violent cannabis convictions. And after the recent wildfires in the region, the organization also contributed financial assistance and relief efforts to displaced farmers.
On top of the non-profit partnerships, the Grow-Off is working to build a job platform to provide paid opportunities in the cannabis industry for members of marginalized communities, like people of colour, the LGBTQ community, and individuals living with disabilities.
“It’s important that the industry remains and grows to be more diverse, as opposed to a predominantly white and male community, which Colorado very much looks like right now,” says Browne.
“When we look at cultivation, it’s one of the most upwardly mobile areas of the industry. Some of the people we talk to started as trimmers and became master growers, or heads of cultivation, running teams within two years. Being able to place people within companies where they can learn real job skills and have opportunities for growth is paramount as we move forward.”