As the hemp farming landscape continues to shift, East Fork Cultivars CEO Mason Walker says growers are looking for more variety in their fields—and East Fork’s new Partner Trial program aims to meet their needs.

The Oregon-based hemp breeder and cultivator has launched a new Partner Trial program that offers up to 75 hemp seeds—25 seeds each of three of the company’s exclusive varieties—to state-licensed farmers in the U.S.

“It’s something that we’ve done on a very small scale in the past, and we decided to make it public this year,” Walker told Cannabis Business Times. “The response so far has been really good.”

The program aims to place new cultivars that are not yet commercially available in the hands of growers in exchange for insights and experiential data that will ultimately help East Fork fine-tune the varieties for commercial sale.

“Folks are looking for more variety in their fields, looking for different things … that are not widely available on the market,” Walker said. “As breeders, we do a lot of small-batch seed for folks. … We had a bunch of promising lines that weren’t quite ready for commercial sale this year, so we decided to massively expand our Partner Trial program, where we give free seed to folks of lines that are one step away from being commercially ready to sell.”

Photo by Lily Guthrie

Each participant in East Fork’s Partner Trial program will receive seeds in May and must fill out a survey on each cultivar as well as provide basic feedback on field performance.

Each participating partner farm will receive seed in May and must fill out a survey for each cultivar as well as provide basic feedback on field performance.

East Fork launched its first structured Partner Trial program in 2020, when the company offered seed to mostly Oregon-based farmers who had close working relationships with the farm.

“That year was our most formal trial year [when] we required participants to fill out surveys throughout the season, and we compiled a pretty comprehensive trial report that we shared with everyone and [we] published a version of it on our blog,” Walker said. “That was what kicked us off as being commercial plant breeders. We’ve been a farming-based company, we’ve grown flower in various formats, and we have a retail presence. We do a little bit of a lot of things. But 2020 really marked our entry into the feminized floral seed market in a real way.”

More farmers participated in 2021, but Walker said this year marks the launch of an official nationwide program.

“We expect to have a lot of participants, but we’ll have an even more limited scope,” he said. “The data we’re asking for is pretty minimal. … We’re just requiring they fill out one survey, but it’s a pretty simple Google form survey. The data we’re collecting is stuff that helps us improve these lines and make sure they’re ready for market.”

East Fork will collect mostly agronomic data, including information on plant stability, plant vigor, pest resistance, harvest times, and germination and feminization rates.

“I think the exciting thing this year is we’re going to have data points from lots of different geographies, so we’ll be able to see how pest resistance of our Sour Pineapple line, for instance, does in really humid environments in North Carolina, but also really arid environments in Nevada,” Walker said. “That will be really fun—more data with more participants this year.”

Participants must sign a material transfer agreement that states they will not conduct any commercial breeding with East Fork’s hemp varieties.

Photo by Lily Guthrie

East Fork is distributing three hemp varieties: Llama Tonic, Ringo’s Gift crossed with Sour Pineapple and Takilma Kush crossed with ACDC.

“The intention is not to give people our intellectual property and breeding stock for their own breeding program,” Walker said. “Our goal is to give them unique seeds that are not available for sale in the market that have, in most cases, really interesting new aromatic and terpene profiles. That’s our focus as breeders, developing and stabilizing lines of compliant hemp that has truly unique aromatic profiles.”

The three cultivars that East Fork is distributing this year include Llama Tonic and two unnamed varieties—Ringo’s Gift crossed with Sour Pineapple and Takilma Kush crossed with ACDC.

“That Takilma Kush is unique because it has a lot of terpinolene,” Walker said. “It’s a predominant terpene that’s not very common in commercial floral hemp lines, so we expect that trait to come through and we’ll have a really gassy hemp line, which will be fun.”

East Fork almost made Llama Tonic commercially available this year, but the team ultimately decided that the cultivar needed a bit more refinement.

Although there are very few state-by-state rules on what hemp seed can be cultivated, and although the spectrum of plant quality is wide ranging, Walker said East Fork has tried to be as transparent as possible about the amount of testing and inbreeding that go into its parent lines.

Walker said there are five essential items that must be dialed in before East Fork deems a cultivar fit for commercial sale: THC compliance, germination rate, feminization rate, phenotypic variability and anomaly rate.

“It has to be fully compliant to USDA pre-harvest testing standards, and [must] have demonstrated that compliance in at least three tests,” Walker said. “That’s number one. We do not want to set anyone up with a hot crop.”

As far as phenotypic variability, East Fork must ensure that its hemp varieties look and smell very similar and mature around the same time.

“One big challenge for farmers is they have a seed line that has a lot of phenotypic variability, and then harvest dates may vary and it’s a logistic feat to harvest part of your field, plant by plant, because they’re maturing at a different time,” Walker said. “Or, if some plants are really dark green and some are really dark purple, that can be an issue for product consistency if they’re selling trimmed flower.”

Photo by Lily Guthrie

The Partner Trial program will ultimately help East Fork accumulate more data as it completes R&D on these three hemp varieties.

East Fork groups many factors into the anomaly rate, which includes any additional undesirable traits that could impact yield or quality.

Ultimately, the Partner Trial program will help East Fork accumulate more data as it completes R&D on these hemp varieties.

“We have third-party, unbiased input on lines that we’re developing that we have a keen commercial interest in going well,” Walker said. “It’s a bunch of data points that can help us improve those lines and get them closer to a product that we sell.”

The program also connects East Fork with farmers it might not already have relationships with—and who might be interested in buying seed from the farm in the future.

“As far as main benefits for the farmers, they get to participate in developing a line,” Walker said. “They can provide feedback and help shape our genetics in a way that would be desirable to them as farmers.”

As competition continues to heat up in the U.S. hemp market, the Partner Trial program also provides farmers with what Walker said is most desirable in the market right now—variety.

“Most hemp farmers, one of the main things they’re looking for in buying seed this year is they want something different,” he said. “They don’t want the varieties that are flooding the flower market. One thing that this trial program offers in a big way is it’s something unique that’s not widely commercially available for farmers to grow. It’s available before it’s commercially available to buy in larger amounts, so it’s unique.”

East Fork has roughly a dozen participants already enrolled in the Partner Trial program and has already started shipping seed.

Many of the participating farmers are experienced growers, Walker said, who have been growing hemp for two to five years and know what they are looking for in terms of plant traits, performance and quality.

Participating farms range in size, Walker added, from larger farms with 30-plus acres to smaller farms with less than an acre.

Farmers have until May 31 to enroll in East Fork’s Partner Trial program, and Walker expects between 50 and 80 farms to participate this year.

“We’re excited to open it up this year,” he said. “We would’ve opened it up last year, but we didn’t have the seed supply for it. We’ve increased the number of seeds we’re creating, and our breeding pipeline has come further along, so we were ready to open it up more this year. We’ll see how it goes this year being wide open, but I’m anticipating it being a pillar program for us. … Our plan as breeders is to keep developing new varieties that have unique aromatic profiles with all the other basic performance that farmers expect.”