In the fast-paced, ever-changing world of cannabis, 20 years can seem like a long time. Yet, that’s how long Tyson Lewis has been cultivating the plant.

For the past seven of those years, Lewis has run High Noon Cultivation, or High Noon Cult. The business grows in raised soil beds using low-till and no-till methods and has about 7,000 square feet of indoor canopy space for flowering cannabis.

Photo courtesy of High Noon Cultivation

Banana Macaroon (Banana Punch x Dosi) by Symbiotic Genetics, grown by High Noon.

Craft producers like Lewis aim to meet cannabis connoisseurs’ needs and wishes by searching for and growing the best genetics while paying attention to the minute details of their cultivation operations.

High Noon sells flower to retailers and also works with water hash makers, Lewis said. (“That market segment’s exploding right now,” he said of water hash.)

The business uses about 1,200 square feet of its indoor grow for what Lewis called a “continuous pheno hunt.” The business cycles through about four crops each year. “…Between eight and 10 genetics come out of that room at the end of the year that actually meet our standard,” he said. “So, out of thousands of seeds, that’s about what we get.”

Explaining some of how the process works, Lewis said that if his team wants to find the best phenotype of Tropicana Cookies, they will purchase numerous seeds of five to 10 different Tropicana Cookies genotypes from various seed providers and try them out.

Cultivating and providing consumers with small-batch, sustainable product takes space, time, and money, Lewis said, so on the front end, full-on pheno hunts might appear to lack efficiency. And the genetics don’t always size up to his and his team’s expectations.

Jesce Horton, another grower with many years of experience, is founder and CEO of LOWD, an indoor grow in North Portland, Ore., with about 7,000 square feet of growing space and plans to expand to about 36,000. (LOWD also plans to add processing and extraction. He shared similar sentiments about the business acumen behind craft production: There’s risk involved in practices that he, Lewis, and others follow, and growers can lose money.

“If I know that I can sell this for this amount, why am I even wasting that space with trying to find something that I can maybe sell for that same amount? It doesn’t make a lot of sense,” Horton said. “But within this commitment and within this pursuit of that, you’re able to unlock something that I think is more than the sum of its parts.

“It’s more than just the R&D and this and that. You’re able to unlock something that touches people who see cannabis smoking as a lifestyle versus people who see cannabis smoking as something they like to do.”

And craft producers who have the experience and put in the effort, like Horton, are able to avoid succumbing to the market saturation and commoditization that others in the industry face, he said.

To be sure, Horton said, these small-batch growers “have no problem selling flower, that have no problem getting top dollar.” He knows from experience.

Cannabis as a Lifestyle

Sherb Mints (Sunset Sherbert x Kush Mints #11), grown by LOWD.

The culture of legacy cannabis—stoner culture—which Horton said some companies are trying to get away from, “still demands and commands the most connoisseur consumers,” he said.

People who are regular consumers of cannabis place a high value on the products they choose to consume, Horton said, much in the same way that other people value their cars or smartphones.

Some companies that are really tuned into this, like LOWD, are breeding their own strains and performing rigorous pheno hunts, he said.

“The companies that are in that echelon are the companies that are constantly coming out with the new genetics, are hitting you with different things, are breeding their own genetics,” Horton said. “Probably the best example—the obvious, the easiest one—is Cookies.

“They’re coming out with their own genetics. They’ve been doing it for a while. They’re very, very connected to stoner culture. No matter where they are, they command the top dollar.”

That includes dispensaries outside of the U.S. On a recent trip to Amsterdam, Horton said he visited one of his favorite coffeeshops, which is now a Cookies coffeeshop. There, as in the states, there’s a price discrepancy between cannabis from Cookies, the company founded by CEO Berner, and product that is sold in other coffeeshops. But consumers shell out that extra dough for Cookies.

Cookies’ Tori Cole, vice president of marketing, told Cannabis Business Times in a recent interview, “At the heart of everything we do, it’s all about the quality genetics, and Berner is super actively involved. He selects every cultivar and really sets our brand strategy.”

What Makes Quality Cannabis?

When making phenotype selections, Horton explained, “it’s all about checking every box”

“That would include, of course, the bag appeal, of course, the nose, of course, the bud structure, the density, of course, the color, without a doubt,” Horton said.” I would say the most important thing is the smoke, the effect. When you hit it, [you’re] like, ‘Oh, that’s official.’”

Lewis echoed that these traits are key, adding that determining and achieving genetic stability is another important goal of breeding and pheno-hunting. It’s at least in part because there are risks of plants pollinating each other and developing intersex traits, even out of feminized seed purchases, that he said High Noon tests seeds in a room separated from the rest of its operation.

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Horchatti (Biscotti x Horchata) by WyEast Farms, grown by Resonant Cultivation.

When it comes to sativa-indica categorization, Lewis said High Noon produces some cultivars that for some have an effect that jibes with what consumers consider a sativa high. However, the company doesn’t select genetics because they are considered sativas or indicas, and crossing two indicas doesn’t necessarily mean that the resulting cultivar will create a relaxing effect that’s indicative of what consumers expect from an indica.

Resonant Cultivation, a roughly 7,500-square-foot indoor grow in Oklahoma’s medical market that has strong ties to and takes heavy inspiration from High Noon, graced CBT’s cover in August 2020. More recently, in March 2022, Resonant Head Grower and Chief Operating Officer Steven Vaughn shared similar thoughts as Lewis about that alleged chemovar dichotomy.

“I don’t think it has any bearing on the actual effect that it gives a person, as far as medicinal properties,” Vaughn said of the indica-sativa classification. “I think if it’s indica-leaning, you’re going to get shorter, squattier plants with fatter leaves, and if it’s sativa, you’re going to get taller, skinnier, stretchier plants with skinnier leaves.”

A key word is “leaning.” Chauncey Venable, Vaughn’s brother who co-owns Resonant with Vaughn and others and is also a grower there, said: “Everything you have out there, everything you see in dispensaries, they’re [almost] all hybrids. When you ask for an indica, odds are you’re not going to get one that’s 100%.”

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Resonant’s team, which conducts thorough pheno hunts but does not breed, looks into the terpene profiles of its cultivars and tries to determine what works best for patients, Venable said. (The company also runs a dispensary in Oklahoma City called Mosaic+.) Terpenes can affect each person differently, and people with diseases such as cancer need to rely on specific compounds that can prevent nausea and vomiting. Venable said it’s a good approach to produce cultivars that have a variety of terpenes.

At High Noon in Oregon, Lewis said more science is required in cannabis and that he has found that cultivars’ terpene profiles don’t always tell the full story of that cultivar’s olfactory attributes. “Sometimes we’re shocked by how low some of the terpene tests are [despite] how gassy and raunchy something will be, so it’s a hard thing to quantify right now,” he said. “I think we’re … probably a couple years away from really knowing what’s producing these flavonoids and what have you.”

Some market trends have become clear, though, at least in Oregon. There, Lewis said, orange and piney smell and flavor notes are gaining less market traction than gassy, fruity ones.

Though craft companies in an array of markets can offer their consumers and patients quality genetics, Venable said, that doesn’t mean consumers or patients in a different state should expect the same effect from two entirely different phenotypes, despite being the same cultivar with the same name.

“I’ll take that a step further and say, even if they did have the same cut and it’s grown by two different people, you’re going to get two completely different results, as far as the terpene profiles, the THC, the CBD, all of it,” Vaughn said on a call with Venable and CBT. The end result will be dictated by growing practices, inputs, and the environment.

Controlling the Craft

As they do in their genetic selections, small-batch growers often manually control various tasks that are increasingly automated at other operations.

High Noon collects rainwater and HVAC water, filters it using ultraviolet light, and uses it for hand-watering in its raised beds. It’s one of many sustainable practices the company incorporates into everyday operations. Sustainability can go a long way in garnering consumer support, Lewis said. The business uses a mix of soil from multiple commercially available products. Each flower cycle, Lewis and his team provide a supplemental, liquid-feed irrigation and topdress two to three times.

“Sustainability and necessity of using less, being that we are on a farm, also, is an important deal, I think, for everybody in this industry right now,” Lewis said.

Similarly, at Resonant, Vaughn said the team uses a coco base in raised beds that it amends with bat guano, seabird guano, and an occasional liquid supplement, such as liquid kelp extract. The business also uses beneficial insects as part of an integrated pest management program.

Resonant took a page from High Noon with hand-watering, too, Vaughn said, adding that different cultivars have different requirements.

“Say you’ve got a plant that’s in the corner of the room versus the center of the room and receives less light and it doesn’t drink as much,” Vaughn said. “If you just have it on an automatic feed system, you could have a tendency to over-water those areas or under-water areas in the middle of the room.”

Venable highlighted that there’s an additional reason why Resonant hand-waters.

“Each individual plant gets a little bit of time—[you’re] looking over it and making sure it’s nice and green, there’s no deficiencies showing up anywhere,” Venable said. “I think that’s what sets us apart from the ones that are on systems where they have the emitters and you turn on the system on and it feeds them—you’re watching your iPhone to make sure that the climate’s all good.

“Well, you might miss something in there. There might be an outbreak of insect or something that you’re missing, and you lose your crop.”

There’s a similar ethos behind hand-trimming at both Resonant and High Noon—the cultivator can completely control the end result.

Noting both the success of High Noon and Resonant, Lewis said, “The … small farm, unique genetics, sustainable model, is something that’s received well by the consumer.”