DNA Genetics exemplifies the modern cultivation business — one that was attracted to the industry out of a love for the plant and now carefully balances the culture of the cannabis community with a hugely successful, global business. Since opening in 2003, the company, owned by brothers Don and Aaron, has grown to approximately 40 employees and has operations in California, Amsterdam, Canada and Chile.
DNA has a track record with which few can compete — including more than 150 awards for their genetics and induction into the High Times Seed Bank Hall of Fame in 2009. And recently, the duo has been forging a new track, not only with their thriving seed company, but through a consulting business that has already landed them a partnership with Canadian cannabis titan Tweed, Inc. (a subsidiary of Canopy Growth Corporation).
“We have added an award-winning global powerhouse in breeding and genetics, acclaimed for the unique strain profiles their cannabis possesses," said Tweed President Mark Zekulin in a press release announcing the partnership in October 2015. According to the release, “The only place where Canadian patients will be able to acquire true, certified DNA strains grown to DNA standards will be Tweed.”
Here, Don and Aaron are interviewed by one of the most well-known names in cannabis cultivation, Mel Frank. Frank has nearly five decades of cultivation experience, is an internationally recognized marijuana book author, publisher and photographer, and has been contributing original articles to cannabis magazines since 1976.
In this revealing interview, Frank talks with Don and Aaron about the origins of and current state of the international seed market, genetics and the future of patents in the industry, why the hype around THC is misguided, an announcement the team makes publicly here for the first time, and more.
Mel Frank: From my understanding, the commercial seed industry began in earnest in Amsterdam in the early ’80s when Skunkman Sam brought seeds of five California cultivars to Amsterdam. Sensi Seeds was the main beneficiary and became a huge company. It's rumored they were bringing in $50 million to $60 million a year in seed sales.
I know the five strains my colleague Skunkman Sam brought, and for almost 30 years, a large majority of the cannabis seeds sold had genetics inherited from those five — namely, Skunk #1 and Haze, which were Skunkman's, my Afghani #1 and Durban Poison, which I donated, and Hindu Kush from another breeder.
Don: Before Sam came to town with his varieties, Amsterdam was predominantly known just for hashish and exotic hashish from all over the world. Amsterdam wasn’t an herb culture until Skunkman brought his seeds.
Aaron: And that brought the new culture, that of smoking and growing high-quality marijuana, to Europe.
Frank: When and where did DNA Genetics begin?
Aaron: We really began as DNA in Amsterdam [in] about 2003.
Frank: But the seed industry was well-established by then.
Aaron: Yes, very well-established.
Frank: How did DNA become as successful as it has, given that you came late to the plate?
Don: It’s funny because we felt we did come late, but in some [people’s] perspective now, we’re considered old-school or OG. ... And perspective is everything because it's another generation, and the whole industry has blossomed in the last 10, 15 years.
It’s been crazy in the last five years, and it’s propelled everything in a way where we’re looked at as old-school among hundreds of new seed companies. So I guess it does make us one of the originals, but we weren’t one of the original originals (laughs).
Aaron: What made us different is, just like Sam the Skunkman, he was a California guy, and for some reason, I think there's something about us Californians, we love our cannabis. And when we grow, first it's for ourselves, and I think that’s the mentality Don and I came to Amsterdam with — that is, we’ll bring our love for the plant, and the Dutch will see that.
We felt that the cannabis scene was way behind California compared to its reputation and the way it actually was. Those were two different things, and we felt we could make a big change there, and we did. We showed the quality of what us California boys could do.
Don: Sam the Skunkman came to town in the ’80s, and then we came to town in the early 2000s, and we had our varieties, but they’re different than Sam's. There’s still a place for the Hazes and the Skunks, and they’re still used in a lot of our different crosses, but it's evolving. And I think we were the next generation, carrying the torch, so to speak.
Frank: I think that some of your success comes from the fact that what is being sold from DNA is what it’s supposed to be and, with no regulation, a lot of [other business’s] seeds sold are falsely labeled with popular names. But you guys have credibility. DNA must have won hundreds of Cannabis Cups. Do you know how many you've won?
Don: I would say somewhere between 150 and 200. We stopped entering cups ourselves as a company.
Frank: But you see your strains entered by other people?
Don: Well, that’s it. In the beginning, we wanted to win as much as we could. … And then once you've won everything, what's better as a genetics company or breeder than to be at a competition and have somebody else win with a strain that they grew with seed from your company?
Frank: I think that’s the epitome of it. It's when somebody else does it with your genetics.
Tangie is so well-known, and you’ve got Lemon Skunk, LA Confidential, Chocolope and loads of others that are industry standards. But I think that your presence at cups also helped your success. You’ve put yourselves out there.
Aaron: Back to what you said earlier about quality and our reputation. Our biggest thing has always been quality. We don’t care about being sold out. We don’t care about the bottom line. ... What matters most is making sure that we give our customers quality products.
Frank: And now that the industry is becoming commercialized and facilities are being built that cost millions, it doesn’t matter how much money is invested if you don’t start with good seed. For any grower, genetics has to be their first consideration before any seed is sown.
In this industry, there are three kinds of seeds: regular seeds, which yield approximately equal numbers of males and females; feminized seeds, which yield all females; and the autoflower seeds.
The autoflower market doesn’t seem to be strong in the United States. Apparently in Europe it is, and I can understand the benefit of autoflowers in that you can grow several crops a year easily because the plants are going to start flowering in a matter of what, six to eight weeks, no matter what the photoperiod is.
Don: In Europe there’s a huge market for autoflowers for exactly [the reason] you said. You can get several crops a year. …
Autoflowers also are valuable for starting by new cultivators because tons of people are curious about growing, and autoflowers are easier with such a short growing period.
Frank: What proportion of the market is feminized seeds? Don't they cost about twice as much as regular seeds?
Aaron: We’ve always charged more for our regular seeds than we did for our feminized seeds. Because if we sell you a pack of regular seeds, you'll grow them and find a male and a female, and you’ll never come back to DNA again; you might even start your own seed company.
Frank: [Laughs.] That’s what I always thought about the seeds. I just didn’t understand how it was sustainable. But one big advantage you guys must have ... is that don’t you use certain males that you keep for propagating? You know that this male is always going to produce an excellent cross.
Frank: It’s harder to find a good male than it is a female, right?
Aaron: Absolutely, because males are trial and error. Sometimes when you’re doing breeding, maybe the first male you used wasn’t the best, and then you have to find a better one. Males are the hardest and, yes, you hold on to your prize males for breeding F1s. F1s to me are everything. So as the breeder, I have the original parents. Nobody else has what I have.
“… People are all hung up on these THC percentages, but they don’t take into account stuff that they’re not measuring, the mixtures of terpenes and terpenoids that affect the taste, psychoactive high and medicinal properties.” — Don, DNA Genetics
Frank: So what proportion of the global market breaks down in terms of autoflower and feminized, and standard seeds? And I know that you use retailers and don't sell to any place that's not legal.
Don: I would say 90 percent of the seeds we sell globally are feminized and 5 percent are autoflower. Here in the States, it seems that people gravitate more toward regular seed.
Frank: So it seems then that Americans are more willing to try their own breeding and find a special phenotype.
Don: Yeah, it’s a different environment. People in the States are risking a lot. So they’d rather be more creative and have a chance to maybe keep a male, or do their own crosses, or try to find something special. In Europe, it’s a different mentality. Except for hardcore growers who still want to breed, the majority don't want to.
Frank: What do you think about the emphasis on THC quantities, where I see these unbelievable figures and claims that everything is over 20 percent, up to 30, and that's what people base their choices on?
Don: Fourteen percent is pretty much the standard, and people are all hung up on these THC percentages, but they don’t take into account stuff that they’re not measuring: the mixtures of terpenes and terpenoids that affect the taste, psychoactive high and medicinal properties.
I think the California market is the most sophisticated in the world … where most consumers are well-aware of the drippings, and of course fragrance and flavor, and how much they have to do, ultimately, with the high, whereas some of the newer markets are still absolutely stuck on what percentage of THC is claimed.
I mean, you don’t ever go to a bar and say give me the ... highest-percentage whiskey you have. That's being ignorant.
Frank: That's a good analogy because that does happen in the cannabis industry all the time, where [people] go into a dispensary and say, oh no, I just want the one with the highest THC.
Don: It’s a problem rampant throughout the industry. It'll take some time for the industry to reeducate and begin to say, ‘I don't care how strong the whiskey is. I want something that tastes good, something I enjoy,' just like wine or cigars or any other connoisseur product, and that’s what cannabis is.
Frank: I think the connoisseur-quality flower business will be here for a long time. It'll just be a smaller piece of the pie.
Frank: One thing I wanted to ask about is your relationship with [Dave] Crockett and Crockett [Family] Farms.
Don: [Crockett] is a friend and our business partner, and he has a whole bunch of great stuff [genetics], and he needed a platform and … an industry launch, and he could have done it all by himself, but it might have taken him longer. So we teamed up and kind of gave him his breakthrough in Europe and also gave him a global platform, but then his genetics speak for themselves.
Crockett Family Farms is its own thing, and DNA is its own thing. … But we share a lot, and we do a lot of projects together. We started a consulting company together. And this would be the first time we have said publicly that Crockett and DNA have a consulting company.
Frank: What do you consult on?
Don: On everything. For example, Aaron and I have been consulting in different legal markets for a while now, and some of the markets need everything — I mean everything. But some just need a … few adjustments.
We can consult from making a few tweaks up to full licensing deals with genetics and strain verification [to] full builds of greenhouses and construction, and design. Everything.
We’ve been approached at our European branch by companies in Australia, India, Macedonia. A lot of countries are getting involved in legal cannabis and its medicine.
With Crockett, another head is better than two, so we put our three heads together, and then we have our fourth partner Nick [Luhowy], who is known as Phenotype Farmers. All together we have a pretty dynamic group.
By the end of the year, we should have around 15 U.S. employees and our first contract, an exclusive contract in California. So we’re definitely excited about this because, for us, consulting is easy. It’s not new information. We already know it.
Frank: As it is now, it's very difficult practically and legally to actually trademark or patent cannabis cultivars. We can identify cultivars with certainty by their terpene profiles, and that's one tool breeders will use to claim ownership. But trademarks and patents in this industry are a mess because of the [federal] illegality of it all, and because so much is now in the public domain. Have you talked to your lawyers or thought about [this] and what it’s going to be?
Don: It’s an interesting time because nobody knows exactly where to invest their energy because everyone’s afraid. At least we are. We’re afraid of making bad decisions or of Monsanto or another company coming in and just absorbing the whole industry.
We did something with genetic sequencing a few years ago where we genetically sequenced the first cannabis strain with a gentleman named Kevin McKernan from, what was the name of his company?
Frank: Medicinal Genomics?
Don: [Yes.] That would be a way, but it’s way too expensive, and no one would be able to tell exactly that it's my strain.
Frank: Well, genetic sequencing has become much, much cheaper in the last few years, where whole sections of genetic sequences can be done at once, cheaply, rather than trying to wade through genes one at a time.
Don: Totally, but they are putting markers in now as well — so they’d put a marker within their own genetics, and that’s the patent. All that stuff is a little bit scary to us.
Because you don’t really know what can happen. I think it comes down to brand and branding, and you also have the community. The cannabis community is a unique association. … We’re coming out of the dark, just now getting legitimized. We still don’t have banks and business legitimacy. But I don’t see a situation where all of a sudden this community is just going to buy into [a] Monsanto's [hypothetical] brand of Kosher Kush or Chocolope, when DNA is right here saying that’s our Chocolope.
Maybe in 10 or 20 years from now it’s going to be those who dug deep who are going to survive, but that’s why you make your partnerships and, yes, where you don’t sell your soul.
Frank: I think [there is] one thing that protects the public from monopolized genetics — to get great seeds out there so that once out, the genie is out of the bottle. Great seeds are in peoples' hands, [in the public domain].
No big company will ever be able to monopolize good genetics. ...
But on the other hand, for companies like DNA, yeah, I think that Big Agra and Big Pharma are going to be formidable competition, and one thing that will help DNA’s longevity is simply that you’ve branded yourselves very well, and are well thought of in the community, and that should carry you for a long time.
Don: Well, we just want to keep doing what we say and say what we're doing.