It’s understood that breeders in Northern California are making exponential strides every year, but few could claim to be as influential as Leo Stone, owner of Aficionado Seeds. A lifetime resident of the area and now CEO of one of the premiere seed productions in the world, he has more than his fair share of insight.
The Emerald Cup will host its 13th annual competition this year. Aficionado Seeds has placed in the upper tier of the flower contest for the last four years, including wins in 2012 and 2015 for their Chemdawg Special Reserve and Cherry Limeade strains, respectively. With the industry growing and thriving daily, the competition gets stiffer in turn. So how does a producer like Aficionado keep their edge? How do you become the best of the best in growing?
According to Stone, it comes down to loving what you do: “[That] was the best piece of advice I’ve ever fuckin’ gotten in my entire life. I’ve had a lot of really good teachers that believed in me just because I wanted to be there. It’s just authenticity, that’s why we like that music paradigm so much.”
Indeed, Stone comes back to comparing cultivation and composition again and again: “If you create music you’re playing from a certain sound and rhythm that you like and you’re mixing them, composing something, and when you take these strains and take things that vibe with us, that we understand, then hopefully we can create something that’s unique.”
Much like any art form, starting from a baseline of your own taste and experience makes the process more intuitive, more enjoyable, and oftentimes, more profitable. “[Sometimes], when people release a strain, they’ll start out really good, and then they’ll get bigger, they’ll get caught up in the green rush, and they’ll start producing seeds just for the sake of gaining wider margins, and I think that’s one of the fastest paths to disaster, when you’re just doing it for the money.”
Consistency is key. In order to breed strains in a way that captures and satisfies the market, you have to be prepared for a great deal of trial and error. Especially with fire strains, Stone explains: “For instance, the seeds of Sour D. If you were to plant ten of ‘em, probably none of them would come up as Sour D. You’d probably have to plant 100 or 1,000 of ‘em to find Sour D.” Much of the time, experience in the industry and knowledge of small details (like knowing Sour D is a recessive plant) is what makes the difference. “We’re talking about a plant that’s older than the human race. It’s got 36,000 genes, whereas humans only have 24,000.”
To be truly successful, your strain has to hit on all points: Look, Smell, Taste, High. Generally, that latter category is going to be the most important, but a compact, well rounded look and a pungent reek should not be underestimated. In this way Stone compares it to another art form: fine dining. “Presentation is one of the most important factors in gastronomy…We do breed for looks, because that’s the whole point of breeding. We haven’t had a scientific education forever. The guys that taught me breeding in the 60s and 70s, it was all about observation. Observation is the cornerstone of human evolution. We look at things, we identify patterns, and then you repeat that process and you optimize it to go on.”
Now, loving what you do and working hard is all well and good. But what ultimately sets Aficionado apart is the local tradition that solidifies its gene brand. The Emerald Triangle being the inflated region that it is, growers are exposed to an abnormally large amount of different strains. Beyond that, the area is rooted in underground outlaw life. There’s a way about things. A code. “A lot of times, you really couldn’t talk in this community about things and you just kind of had to know.”
While other cultivators seem bent on cleaning up their image, Stone argues that image is an essential component. Like music, his strains are “byproducts of particular cultures in society. It’s pure, undiluted spoken truth, borrowed from the realities and experiences of the people who lived in that culture. And this is what our strains are: the distillation of four generations of love for cannabis and outlaw activity.”
While Aficionado works on anywhere from 10 to 15 strains a year, only 3 to 5 will make the cut. This gives you an idea into the level of precision and care required to reach the upper echelon of this business. Like anything else, standing out now is harder than ever: “We’re in this age of over information, We’re constantly stimulated, we’re experiencing thousands of inputs every hour. And so if your strain is good enough for someone to remember it, and share it, then it’s legit. Its real. You can’t fake quality.”