12 Questions for Casey Connell, Founder of Contender Gardens

The cannabis master grower talks to us about biological controls, attending Oaksterdam University, mildew- and mold-resistant strains, buds so pure they burn white ash, and the current state of Washington's cannabis industry.

By Dave Kaplan

 

What’s the Contender Gardens origin story?

Contender Gardens came from the medical marijuana sector here in Washington State. I formed the entity in 2012, working out of a warehouse in downtown Seattle downtown. At the time, we were cultivating cannabis under the name Contender Agriculture and donating our harvests to local dispensaries at the time. When legalization passed in 2013, I applied for a license to cultivate for recreational purposes under the name Contender Gardens. The process took a while, to put it mildly. In June 2016, we finally got it and I was running both companies for a little while—Contender Agriculture out of Seattle and Contender Gardens out of Spokane. When recreational legalization occurred and all medical cannabis operations were gutted at the state level, I closed Contender Agriculture and transitioned my efforts full-time to Contender Gardens.

Were you able to process revenue through banks and other financial institutions?

No, at that time they weren’t facilitating any transactions from our industry. I went through three or four different banks at the beginning and got used to switching around because they would just close your account after a handful of months. Since then, we have found four local credit unions in our state that work with us and they have played a large part in our operations.

 

 

How much experience with horticulture and botany did you have prior to the endeavor?

I had been growing since 2001 and I felt that I was good at it and knew enough about cannabis cultivation to be successful. Cannabis was big business at the time. It was worth a lot of money and I knew that I could make more money growing cannabis than what I could earn from my day job at the time. I had saved up enough money and figured why not? They were allowing companies to form their own entities, pay taxes, and grow cannabis as a business even though it was still a gray area, so I decided to rent a warehouse and just do it!

What are the mission statement and the end goal at Contender Gardens?

Our end goal, and what we pride ourselves on, is being a clean-driven company. We always put the consumer first, realizing that many of them are using cannabis for medical reasons. That’s why we emphasize using biological controls. Cannabis has been a Schedule 1 substance for so long there really isn’t research on any residual pesticides, organic or not, and their effects when ingested or inhaled—especially now with extractions and concentrates. We just don’t have the data to determine if it’s safe. Consumers using cannabis as medicine may be doing more harm than good when ingesting cannabis grown with pesticides. When the rollout happened in our state, we were under very strict testing, even stricter than most food testing. They were measuring bio-negative bacteria, mycotoxins, yeast, mold, foreign elements, etc. to make sure the product was clean, and that is going to be the standard for cannabis worldwide in the future. At the end of the day, that’s what Contender Gardens is all about: growing the cleanest possible cannabis using biological controls.

 

 

What do your customers say about your cannabis? Does it taste or look better?

What I hear the most is, “Gosh, that was the smoothest cannabis I’ve ever smoked.” Our cannabis burns white ash, and most people have never seen that before so the feedback is almost always extremely positive.

 

 

Is Contender Gardens cultivate indoor or outdoor cannabis, or both?

We grow both. We mostly cultivate in controlled-environment greenhouses, which I consider to be indoors. We also have indoor rooms and even hoop houses, where we can effectively deprive certain types of cannabis of any light. We kind of do it all. You’ve taken courses at Oaksterdam University, one of the more prominent cannabis colleges in the world.

 

 

What was your experience like there? Which courses did you take?

Yes, I earned 4 degrees from Oaksterdam. They were all in-class, intensive crash courses, ranging from one day to an entire week. It was great and the networking that I came away with was phenomenal. The people and professors you meet there are great, and you just learn so much. I took classes that spanned the gamut from extraction techniques to cooking edibles to managing your own dispensary or grow operation. And the cultivation courses they offered allowed me not only to fine-tune my skills but also gain some on-paper certification, which would have helped attract investors to Contender Gardens if needed.

Would you have ever thought two decades ago that you would be growing cannabis for a living?

Yes, as a matter of fact! Back in 2001, when I was still in college, I moved out to the mountains in Albuquerque, New Mexico, to grow weed. Back then, cannabis had the same value as gold: $350 per ounce/$20 per gram. As an econ major at the time, I realized that even if it took me 10 years to learn how to grow cannabis really well, it would still end up paying off. So I knew I wanted to grow cannabis for a living back then. I just wasn’t yet sure how I would do it on a grander scale. Let’s talk about biological controls.

 

 

How does the process work and which insects does Contender Gardens use?

Depending on the season, we use 9-13 different kinds of beneficial insects to protect our crops and cover all our bases. Generally, you want to have a preventative insect for thrips, spider mites, and aphids. But it’s never that simple; there are other contaminants you want to prevent and different issues that will arise as a result of the climate and the time of year. You really need to know your pests as well as your beneficial insects and their specific characteristics. Some insects will go into a type of pseudo-hibernation called diapause if they are not exposed to enough light or adequate temperatures, rendering them completely ineffective. But you can mitigate that diapause by tweaking the climate in a grow room, so the process can be very effective if you know your stuff. You need to know which insects work well in different stages of the growing cycle, and how to correctly use them. Humidity also plays a huge role; many insects won’t breed or lay eggs—or the eggs won’t hatch—if your humidity isn’t what it needs to be, and your crops won’t get the protection they need as a result. But if you raise the humidity too high, you open the door to botrytis, powdery mildew, and mold. It’s pretty fascinating stuff, to be honest.

 

 

So you feel pretty strongly against pesticides then?

Not entirely. I view them as a necessary evil that is required. Contender Gardens is not always pesticide-free. Every now and again, we may have to spot spray a plant or solve a problem that biological controls will not adequately eliminate. Sometimes we have to knock back an entire room prior to a scheduled insect release, which is really the equivalent of pressing the reset button for cultivators. The important thing when spraying pesticides is knowing how to use them appropriately—i.e. what the half-life of that pesticide is; which growth cycle stage you are in and how that pesticide will affect it; which residuals will be leftover as a result; what the cannabis will be used for. That last point is of particular importance because pesticides are compounded in the extraction process, which can be lethal if they are not removed before ingestion. Also, there are some biological pesticides, such as mold spores or certain bacteria, which work really well for specific purposes. We will use pesticides only when the situation absolutely warrants it. The vast majority of the time, however, we are using beneficial insects.

Aside from your biological control expertise, what separates Contender Gardens from its competitors?

I’m glad you asked. When I started going down the biological controls road back in 2012, I had a powdery mildew issue that was pretty devastating. At the time, I had to spray fungicides to kill the pathogens because no insects are going to eat that type of fungus. Over the last six years, I’ve been experimenting with growing many different cannabis strains in three different locations across the state, searching for strains that would be wholly non-susceptible to mold or mildew. My sister helped me with this endeavor. We experimented from 52,000 total seeds and 81 strains in tissue forms, placing several plants in different cultivation sites that had the pathogen present. Those plants that resisted the mildew were then selected and moved to the other cultivation sites for further testing. The result of this R&D was approximately 14 unique Contender Gardens strains entirely resistant to mildew and mold! You can find these strains on our website. 

 

 

What are the biggest challenges you’ve encountered since entering the industry?

I think the biggest challenge has probably been the prices for cannabis unilaterally plummeting in the state since legalization. This has been the result of a surplus of cannabis—limited retailers and shelf space in conjunction with too many cultivators. This has had a profound effect on our bottom line and the bottom lines of many of our competitors. Taxes are also a big issue for us. Cannabis in Washington is immensely overtaxed. It’s ridiculous. Currently, cannabis is subject to a 37.5% tax at the retail level but when legalization was first rolled out, cannabis was being taxed 25% at every level—production to processors, processors to retailers, and retailers to end consumers—which made for an absurd 75% tax on the final product. At first, nobody was making money but the state. Fortunately, that has been amended but the state’s hefty regulations also need to be dialed back a little because there is so much labor required to comply with them. Compliance is expensive. It’s a full-time job and you have to pay someone to do it, and those costs eat away at our already razor-thin profit margins.