We sat down with our head of Research & Development, Brian Campbell, to find out what new and exciting things he and his team are working on back at the farm
Q: Brian, first why is it important that our R&D is done in Colorado?
A: The short answer: we have Cultivation R&D in Colorado because it is our home base for the company! However, a plant’s performance and even its physical appearance or phytochemical profile can be affected by environmental factors like rainfall patterns, temperature, and disease pressure. This makes it important to test our R&D plants in the environments where they are intended to perform (their target environment). That is why, in addition to testing in Colorado, we test our plants at multiple sites around North America every year to better understand how much of any variety’s characteristics are controlled by genetic factors versus environmental factors. It also helps us identify which plants will perform better at our different cultivation sites.
Q: Plants are from nature – why do we need R&D for our hemp?
A: There are many reasons, but the main ones in my opinion are: consistency of our products, efficiency of production, and development of new products. We pride ourselves on consistency in our products, but also acknowledge the challenges of making those products from living biological organisms. Early in the company’s history, we were forced to maintain consistency in cultivating Proprietary Hemp Genetics, the plant used to create the product Original Formula to create access to thousands of our core consumers. Furthermore, it became apparent that if we wanted our products to be the same every time, we couldn’t rely on sourcing seed from other companies because the plants were highly variable within the seed lots and it was difficult to get the same things year to year. From that need, our breeding program was born, and we developed our own varieties with stability and uniformity in mind. This also had the effect of making our products unique because nobody else was or is making their products with the same plants we use. Several of these varieties are now patented and are an important piece of our company’s IP. Once the breeding program was established, we had the opportunity to create varieties that had improved traits like increased yield, disease resistance, uniformity, and novel phytochemical profiles. This greatly reduced our cost of goods over the last few years, and we now have a rich germplasm pool (a set of living plants and seeds) that allows us to develop plants with specific characteristics. Working together with Chemistry R&D and New Product Development, this helps us produce a steady stream of cutting-edge products and have plenty of options for the future.
Q: So R&D makes our farms better. How?
A: Charlotte’s Web was one of the first companies to grow hemp specifically to harvest its phytochemicals. Because nobody had grown hemp in the United States since World War 2 and never specifically for phytochemical extraction, there were a lot of knowledge gaps regarding best practices for cropping. Being at the forefront of that movement has had its fair share of painful trial and error but has been an immense learning experience which turned into a competitive advantage. There are still many active parts of R&D regarding the agronomic aspects of our research. Things like optimal planting dates, optimal planting density, fertilizer rates, and even equipment modification and testing are still being refined for each variety and farm. We also have switched over the last few years to a fully organic production system which requires many innovative practices. We have quite a few different production systems that we work in and there are unique solutions for each set of challenges. We work closely with our Cultivation team to improve those aspects of planting and farming, along with the genetics research and plant breeding.
Q: So did I hear you’re researching over 200 varieties of hemp at your research facility? Wow.
A: Well, we do research at all of our farms! But there are a number of things that we do differently in our research plots than what we would do in our production fields. Mainly, we test a lot of different plants. In our production fields we would usually grow one to three varieties over many acres. In our breeding plots, we may test up to 200 different breeding lines and test hybrids within two or three acres. We also make selections from developmental populations which segregate for many different traits. We take thousands of cuttings from the field each season to make sure that we have the very best selections from each trial. Another aspect that differs is the amount of information that we collect about the plants. After a variety is released for large scale cultivation the plants are mostly monitored for health and quality control during the growing season. When a variety is in development, there are hundreds of data points that are collected about individuals being selected for parent stock as well as rigorous evaluation of all of our test hybrids. The added effort of all that data collection gives us the evidence to support our decision making, answer important questions, and allows us to make the best varieties possible.
Q: How do you know what success likes?
A: There are a lot of ways to succeed or fail when working with plants. In breeding, I often measure success as genetic gain. Essentially, calculating genetic gain uses data from multiple generations of related plants to measure how much a trait has changed due to selection. It is important to understand how much of what we see is determined by genetics (rather than environment) and how heritable the trait is. Without diving into evolutionary genetics, selection is generally intended to be directional (increasing or decreasing something) or stabilizing (reducing variance in a trait). So, when traits shift in the direction we intended in our next generation of plants, that is a success to me. However, more broadly, I measure success as ROI (return on investment) for projects. In Cultivation R&D there are a huge number of topics that we could choose to explore and a practically endless number of plants to evaluate. This makes it extremely important when pitching a project to ask the question, will accomplishing our proposed objectives result in more value for the company than it costs to implement? As scientists, it’s tempting to explore topics because you are curious about how something works, but we need to make sure that our focus is on applied research. This can be a challenge sometimes because there are areas where it’s hard to define the inherent value of a piece of knowledge or a unique plant, but it remains a guiding principle in deciding which tasks to undertake as well as a metric for success.
Q: So I heard you don’t plant seeds all year long. When is your planting season?
A: In Colorado, we usually plant
Q: So what are you hoping to learn from your research plots?
A: It depends! We research a broad range of topics so it could be anything from learning what is the best date to plant a variety, to elucidating the genetic architecture of a trait, to identifying and selecting a plant with a novel terpene profile. We always define our objectives for any given project long before plants go into the ground, but we combine as many projects as possible in our field trials since we only get one shot per year at them!
Q: Summer is here. What do the long summer days mean for your plants?
A: Longer days means more sunlight (haha)! But, seriously, the majority of hemp plants are photosensitive, which means that day length determines their growth stages. Specifically, long days and short nights tell a hemp plant to grow more vegetative tissue (leaves and stems). Short days and long nights tell a hemp plant to grow flowers. Understanding the degree to which varieties are affected by day length is important in our work because it determines when we harvest and if certain varieties will be suitable for more northern or southern latitudes.
Q: What are the top 5 things you need to do to prep for planting?
A: This is a tough one because there is a huge amount of logistics, and we end up with long checklists of important items. A few of the big ones would be establish/reinforce good communication both within the team and with farming partners, make sure all plans/maps/protocols are in place before any seed goes out, making sure all seeds and seedlings are in the right places at the right times, preparing the fields (tillage, applying fertilizer, irrigation, etc.), and making sure all hands are on deck and ready for the big push.
Q: Walk us through your average planting day. What does it look like?
A: This can be highly variable depending on the projects, but it’s always a whirlwind. There are a lot of days of preparing but planting usually happens all in a day or two. Sometimes we have six people riding on our water wheel transplanter dropping seedlings into the ground at a rapid pace, sometimes we’re using a precision planter to plant large swaths with seeds directly, and sometimes we’re painstakingly planting seeds or seedlings by hand and measuring out every plot. Regardless, it’s one of my favorite types of organized chaos with many thousands of plants heading to their carefully planned homes for the season. It’s a day I look forward to every year, not only because it’s beautiful outside in early June, but because it carries a tangible feeling of accomplishing a carefully laid plan combined with the exciting potential of what we will find throughout the season.