Decoding Hemp

The Cedar Valley team has gleaned a wealth of knowledge during our first growing season. From one perspective, hemp can seem like a rather unassuming little weed…but taking a closer look at this ancient and versatile plant reveals a vast assortment of intricacies that modern agriculture is only starting to unravel.

For example, when you start to compare hemp to other, long-standing commercial agricultural commodities such as corn or wheat, variances between the products and how they are farmed become apparent immediately.  Those crops have been bred for generations, and in that time, standards have been developed that mostly guarantee consistent yields.

This is not the case with hemp, which essentially was cast into exile for a century thanks to prohibition. This means farmers across the U.S. are starting at square one when it comes to hemp cultivation.

At Cedar Valley, we decided to start by studying the very basic elements of what makes hemp – or any organic organism – unique: genotypes and phenotypes. Both play a fundamental role in defining what starts as a seed and becomes a product on a shelf, and they are the factors that serve as the baseline for identifying and naming plant strains.

Simply put, genotypes are genetic indicators – inherited traits. Within humans these indicators manifest as traits such as hair color, eye color, height, etc. Genotypes are encoded in a plant’s seeds and determined before the plant even breaks ground on a field or in a greenhouse.

Phenotypes, on the other hand, are created as a plant grows. While a phenotype is influenced by its genotype, phenotype traits are not inherited through genetic coding. Rather, these are traits influenced by environmental factors…and this is where things can get tricky.

For example, on a hemp farm you will typically have different strains in different sections of the field, and those sections can be large with varying environmental characteristics.  One section of a strain could be receiving different environmental elements than another section of the same strain. This will cause different phenotypes that will influence a variety of factors like terpene profile, cannabinoid content and physical appearance.

We recently (and somewhat inadvertently) created a quintessential case study on this subject when we discovered around 10 different phenotypes occurring from one strain of our Purple Cowboy plants. Phenotypes also impacted our harvesting decisions. Due to the regulations involved with THC content in hemp plants, we found ourselves forced to make the unplanned decision to pull some less mature plants in order to keep them from developing levels of THC that would render them unsuitable for the intended market.

To try and get in front of this for next season, we have implemented some strategies. We’ve been running side-by-side comparisons with plants that have come from seed and those that have been cloned from mother plants. These comparisons aided in Cedar Valley choosing to work strictly with clones next season.

The unpredictability that is presented by phenotypes has been all but eradicated in the world of established agribusiness. Common grains or vegetables you consume on a regular basis are derived from seed genetics that were studied and bred with the direct intent to develop a crop that grows efficiently and abundantly; and every day at Cedar Valley we are utilizing technology and science to establish the same standards for the future of hemp genetics.


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