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The Grow-Off goes medical, drawing local shops into the science-minded competition

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Legally blind, Los has a heightened sense of smell that could give him an edge — especially when it comes to terpenes. - DANIEL JITCHAKU
  • Daniel Jitchaku
  • Legally blind, Los has a heightened sense of smell that could give him an edge — especially when it comes to terpenes.

Carlos Valencia wears his sunglasses indoors. It's not a fashion statement nor workplace practicality. Rather Valencia, a cannabis cultivator who goes by "Los" for short, is required to wear sunglasses as a means of combating the effects of Stargardt disease, a common form of vision loss which has rendered him legally blind.

Lest anyone assume this condition impairs his ability to carry out the responsibilities of his job, the 40-year-old master grower at Frank's Farm (715 S. Circle Drive) is quick to make his case. Valencia says he uses microscopes and magnifying glasses to examine plant detail he might not otherwise be able to see.

"To read, I have to use a magnifying glass," Valencia explains, "so it really wasn't a huge transition for me."

One upside to Valencia's staggering 20/400 vision is that it's honed his other senses. Asked about his sense of smell, Valencia replies, "Oh, it's keen."

"I can smell the front notes and the back notes, usually a lot cleaner than a lot of people," he adds.

To illustrate his point, Valencia recalls a specific incident wherein the tags on two similar plants — King's Kush and Grape Ape — somehow got mixed up, leaving him in a bind with only his nose for a guide.

"King's Kush is basically Grape Ape crossed with Skunk #1, so it's like they smell the same, except not really, because right on the back end there's that little bit of skunk that sneaks in and gives you that brightness, where on the Grape Ape it's more of a round purple smell."

While all master growers are likely to possess sophisticated palates, few are likely to have the neurologically fortified perceptions of smell and taste that have been gifted to Valencia in the absence of strong vision. And this could be a defining edge for Frank's Farm as they participate in the Denver-based cultivation competition, "The Grow-Off," over the next six months.

The Grow-Off, which was co-founded in 2016 by industry stalwarts Samantha Sandt and Jake Browne out of Denver, describes itself as a "quantitative quest for the best" on its website. The unique competition aims to level the playing field through science. Each participating dispensary is issued an identical mystery clone. What follows is a model similar to popular cooking competition shows where each participant begins with an identical base ingredient. Grow-Off competitors are given six months to grow, cut, and cure their plant before a sample is sent off to a lab to undergo a thorough and objective judging process based on hard data. The finished products will be judged on three criteria: THC content, terpenes, and yield.

For the competition, this is how the weed ends: not with a bong, but with a beaker — a fact that was in no small part shaped by founder Browne's past experiences as both participant and judge in various cannabis-related competitions. In those contests, judging is often left to a roundtable debate on seemingly subjective criteria such as physical appearance, smell and quality of the high. The results tend to be first and foremost a marketing tool.

"I've dealt with the frustration of losing but not knowing why, or where we finished; we just knew that we didn't win," Browne says. "So, we wanted to do something different where not only do we tell people exactly where they finished in all of these categories, but we try and help them improve."

This improvement would be based on, and aided by, a data collection system that highlights certain successful variables of a grow while still protecting valuable trade secrets and proprietary information. Ultimately, Browne and Sandt share a long-term vision that leaves room for not only competition, but collaboration, both between growers and the events themselves.

"Our future goal is to have, essentially, our own Wikipedia that competitors can access, that not only has information about this competition, but past competitions, as well," says Browne.

The nurturing spirit of The Grow-Off has not gone unnoticed by its participants. "This is a healthy competition," says the storefront manager of Frank's Farm — a mustachioed, bespectacled, blue-haired, jack-of-all-trades nicknamed "Coffee." "This is, 'Let's see who does it the best, and whoever does it the best, y'know, golf clap.' But it feels like I'm in a science experiment more than a competition."

"I like the open-source idea about it," adds Valencia. "It gives you more of a meter about the actual plant itself, what its limits are versus the people who are growing it. It's pretty neat."

Locals "Los" (left) and "Coffee" (right) will compete in the inaugural Grow-Off. - DANIEL JITCHAKU
  • Daniel Jitchaku
  • Locals "Los" (left) and "Coffee" (right) will compete in the inaugural Grow-Off.

The current round of competition, which officially began with clone distribution on May 10, is the second Grow-Off, coming on the heels of the inaugural contest that launched last August.

While the nuts and bolts of the competition — concept, rules, time frame, judging, etc. — have remained largely unchanged, what is different this go-around is that the pool of competitors is limited to medicinal shops, whereas the initial Grow-Off was only available to recreational shops. This has allowed The Grow-Off to extend its reach into markets such as the Springs, where retail marijuana sales aren't legal, but medicinal shops can be found everywhere. Browne estimates that of this round's 74 competitors, upwards of 20 will be coming out of the Springs, including Frank's Farm, as well as shops like Altitude Organic Medicine on Platte Avenue, and Quality Choice Alternative Care Center on Boulder Street.

Excitement abounds.

"I think about the competition every day," says Jonathan Mundy, master grower at Quality Choice and a recent California transplant. "This is all fun and games, but it's my reputation on the line and I can't afford to fall to the bottom. I strive to be the best grower Colorado has to offer."

Jon Ahr, vice president of horticulture at Altitude Organic, appreciates the hard data used by The Grow-Off. "It's a straightforward way to compliantly see how we compare to other dispensaries in the state in regards to certain metrics," he says. "It's great that everyone starts on an even playing field and the judging is more objective than subjective. It's definitely different than most other cannabis competitions."

When asked if he has any theories about the identity of the mystery strain The Grow-Off has given him, Ahr is cautious. "I'm trying to not get ahead of myself," he says. "The strain will reveal itself in due time. I can already tell in the clone stage that it's a healthy plant and I'm looking forward to getting more time with these cuts."

The "cuts" Ahr mentions represent perhaps the greatest practical shift from round one of The Grow-Off to round two. Whereas in the initial contest participants were gifted a fully rooted clone — "something of a luxury," according to Browne — in round two the contestants have been given unrooted plants, forcing growers to go the extra mile in their cultivation process. (Browne likens it to handing the growers cut branches from a tree.)

"We did a kind of survey amongst growers whether unrooted or rooted would be better or worse and the resounding response was that if they don't know how to root a clone, then they shouldn't be in the competition," says Sandt. "And we liked the added element of challenge."

Science will determine winners. - DANIEL JITCHAKU
  • Daniel Jitchaku
  • Science will determine winners.

Participating dispensaries have until Nov. 10 to harvest their plants, at which point 5 grams must be submitted for testing. This leaves the competing shops free to sell the rest of their yield as a premium product, but as Ahr illustrated, what that product will ultimately be nobody knows for sure, save for Browne and Sandt.

All that competitors know is that the strain comes from "an elite genetics program" which is to say that it is an entirely new strain. Naturally, this necessitates a highly involved growing process for the competition's clones, demanding serious and close observation, detailed knowledge of plant genetics, and the utilization of all of the growers' senses.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, back at Frank's Farm, Valencia has a hunch.

"I think it grows like a sativa-dominant hybrid," he says. "It grows more like a vine, which is something you see when they start crossing genetics like that."

At the end of the day, though, for these growers, winning isn't necessarily tied to nailing the plant's genetics, but rather, learning something that could potentially help their clients.

"Winning would obviously be a great way to show our patients that our methods make a difference in the final products," says Ahr, who is also wary of putting all his nugs into one jar, so to speak. "A competition with one plant is just that, though. For us, it's more about the day-to-day that makes us feel like we are achieving something."

"In rec shops, you see people come in and out of the doors; in med shops, you see patients, you know their name, you usually know their ailment," says Coffee, who — as someone who credits cannabis for helping him off the path of prescription painkillers and anxiety meds — hates seeing toxic competitiveness infiltrate an industry designed around health.

To the credit of The Grow-Off, Browne and Sandt seem attuned to this, with their emphasis on transparency and open-source knowledge, while also respecting the individual modes and methods that lead to such a diverse industry and market. "A lot of these competitions are celebrating the dispensary owner and their best strain," he says. "But what we're going through with The Grow-Off shows consumers the process from clone to finished product on the shelf and how that happens, celebrating the grower's work because without them we wouldn't have an industry."

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