Raw Garden's Unique Strain Strategy: Q&A with Khalid Al-Naser
Courtesy of Raw Garden

Raw Garden's Unique Strain Strategy: Q&A with Khalid Al-Naser

From Abracadabra to Zookies, the sheer variety taps into one of the great forces in the cannabis consumer marketplace: a search for something new.

May 21, 2021

On Raw Garden’s website, as of May 2021, the Santa Barbara-based cannabis cultivation business lists “839 strains and counting,” each one an example of the breeding program at the heart of the garden. From Abracadabra to Zookies, the sheer variety taps into one of the great forces in the cannabis consumer marketplace: a search for something new.

We spoke with Raw Garden’s product director, Khalid Al-Naser, to learn more about the strategy.

Eric Sandy: Could you describe how Raw Garden came to be?

Khalid Al-Naser: I've been with Raw Garden through every iteration, which started in the [Prop.] 215 space. A lot of the early culture and ethos was built around the idea of developing good medicine: quality, consistently, at an accessible price. As we moved through a lot of the transition [to the adult-use market] and licensing, we really tried to keep that at the heart of what we were doing.

So, we pushed really hard around the concentrates. As the 30% tax came in, we lowered our price to make sure that consumers didn't have a price change at the retail level. Subsequently, we ended up launching our vape carts, which just put us in a really great position in the market. We were priced well and had a high-quality product, which just made a really great value proposition. That really pushed us along to where we are today, which is a growing brand that's really trying to provide a lot of great consumer experiences—while still holding onto this idea that we can create accessible products that are high-quality, and it doesn't have to be stagnant or boring.

Courtesy of Raw Garden

ES: Breeding is a big part of that mission, right? Making sure that the product line is not stagnant?

KA: In our earlier iterations, we did indoor growing. So, as we transitioned in 2015 to the farm and took the name Raw Garden, Thomas Martin and John De Friel, who founded the farm along with two others, invested really early into breeding. The idea of quality was really emphasized by the need to control the supply chain. They understood that the cloning process and a lot of the things that were being done in that industry didn't support good agronomics.

Early on, there was a lot of investment there, as a consequence of that striving for accessibility and quality. The only way we can make it accessible is by exploiting efficiencies, which is what farmers traditionally do. And then the high quality really comes from that ability to control the farmed product, rather than having somebody else to it for you.

ES: What does an in-house breeding program allow Raw Garden to do when it comes to interacting with the customer or responding to customer sales trends?

KA: The really cool thing about it is that it almost allots you every opportunity—albeit at a huge expense, mostly in time and energy. What we do is try and follow consumer trends and breed for things that are popular, but we also hedge our bets and utilize our program as an opportunity to hold on to legacy strains or heritage strains that we feel are important things that people will want to come back to. It allows us the ability to plant seeds rather than clones. That allows for an amazing efficiency, not only from a business perspective, but also just in the plants’ production or productiveness. When we plant seeds, we get a good, strong taproot. The subsequent benefits of that are a much more vigorous plant. With clones, oftentimes you get a very repeatable product, but there are sensitivities around when the cutting is taken and the quality of the cutting.

By breeding, we're really trying to breed for farmable seed that are semi-homogenous, if not homogenous. They give us repeatable aromatic bouquets, but also repeatable agronomic traits that make it easier to farm and easier to harvest. When I say easier to harvest, the uniformity of the crop allows for uniform maturation, which means that you can uniformly harvest. When you have a lot of the variation, so too is there variation in the maturity. So that becomes a big issue.

The biggest thing that it allows us is to drive diversity and assortment. If you think about it, most cannabis producers, especially on a smaller scale, ourselves included at many parts of our iterative cycles, rely on clones.

Clones are really when somebody is taking a bag of seeds and planting them, it's their favorite plant or the plant that performed or smelled or looked the best to them. So, they select that plant and they make cuttings from it. As a consequence, they end up with a very uniform plant that is needing to be managed in order to keep it in and continue to move forward its progeny. But when you planted those seeds, there were less desirable or different strains that were not selected against for whichever reason. What we find a lot of times nowadays with better genetics is that sometimes breeders will have more than one favorite out of a bag of seeds.

ES: The possibilities seem immense.

KA: A great example is that we were known early on for our Slymer strain, which is an F1 phenotype from Chernobyl, which is from Subcool seeds. They would acknowledge that they have what they would call the Golden Ticket, which was this Slymer phenotype, which for Chernobyl is generally a lemon/chem type of flavor. The Slymer was a very clear lime flavor. So, both of these things were coming out of the same seed line, and it just really depended which expression you got. Similarly, when we're breeding, back-breeding or crossing different strains, sometimes we'll get more than one variation that we find desirable. Sometimes we'll even get recessive traits that will just kind of pop out that are unique and new and interesting from that seed line.

What we do is we make those selections and then we start breeding against those multiple different lines. And that ability to follow what we think is agronomically interesting, as well as what smells interesting and looks like it'll be an impactful plant, is the consequence of variety. From everything we plant, we end up with anywhere from maybe one to five varieties, depending on where it is in regards to breeding. As we stabilize those individual things, they become an individual particular strain, but maybe earlier on generationally, there was a point where they branched off into three different strains.

ES: How fragile are these genetic lines? If you're not dialed in as a breeder, is it possible to lose some of the traits that you're actually trying to select for?

KA: Like all genetic traits, you have dominant and recessive traits. And I won't suggest to say we know enough about plant yet to say definitively, but it seems like some plants act as better platforms. A lot of times, those are agronomic traits—the structure of the plant, the shape of the plant, the shape of the bud. When we find those good platforms, they generally tend to pick up aromatic traits from other plants more easily. But there are certain aromatic traits—Banana OG is a really great example where there's almost a standard banana-type smell, green banana-type smell and then the overripe, sugary, almost candied banana smell. Those three smells, while you get variation between the three, they're very fleeting. When you breed it against other things, there are only very few strains that seem to be able to be bred against it.

The same thing happens when you breed it against itself, depending on how stable it is and depending on which plant shows which expression. So, yes, some strains do more of that and some strains do less of that. The thing that is true of all breeding, especially with where we are in the plant's life, is that they are all fragile to some degree, if you're not being mindful about making the selections and doing your due diligence in the field. Even just the wrong selection can lead to you losing an incredible aroma profile or something else that you might've found interesting.

ES: What’s the bar that you're trying to clear with these genetics? Meaning, what does it take for a certain stable line to make the cut and get out into the consumer marketplace?

KA: The biggest thing is plant health, obviously. The plant has to be healthy throughout its whole life. We don't look to plants that are weak in the beginning of their life. From there, it’s mostly on the aromatic qualities and the quality of the oil production. And when I say the quality, obviously with the aromatics it's more a desirability factor. With cannabis, that can come across as a lot of different notes. Some people like the skunk, the funk, the dank. Other people are looking particularly toward fruity flavors or things that are more familiar to them—things like lemons or orange or berry. If we think that it meets any one of multiple criteria for what we think is good aroma, that's one of the bigger drivers for moving it forward.

As far as good oil production, obviously if we're going to keep the genetics moving forward we'd like something that's abundant in resins. But also what we're looking for is stuff that just produces good resin heads and abundant production of terpene so that we can collect those more readily. As long as it's smells good and it's producing a fair amount of oil, we generally push it through and then let the consumers to some degree provide feedback based on sell-through and other metrics. What we do if some things get moved forward into the market and there's less of a response, those things never end up coming back. With other things, if we see a huge groundswell of support, we’ll know early on to try and refocus energies around that.

There’s a lot of hedging and making our own guesses on what we think will be popular. Like fashion, what's trendy in the cannabis space seems to be cyclical. Anything that was popular a couple of years ago could likely be popular a few years into the future. Same with novelty. Where we have certain strains today, it's very likely that we'll have new strains with new aromatic qualities that we've never even thought of in a few years.

Brian Walker/Courtesy of Raw Garden
ES: You mentioned resin content, but are there certain traits or certain types of traits that end up making a cultivar or a family of cultivars better suited for the concentrates/vape form as opposed to just straight flower?

KA: Structure is a big one, as well as mold resistance and insect resistance. This goes back to the health of the plant. Mold resistance, in particular, and bug resistance are traits that the plants pick up—and these aren't just passive traits. They have more to do with things like terpene and oil production. More resinous plants with certain volatile, aromatic compounds tend to repel bugs. Similarly, good structure and the right kind of spacing and not overly leafy plants act as better barriers to moisture, which subsequently results in more mold resistance. The thing that's kind of funny, and I don't know if it's a term everyone recognizes, but we generally refer to buds that are kind of large and oversized as larfy, and they're considered undesirable.

It refers to poor structure. Those kinds of larfier, bigger buds that don't have great bag appeal for a finished flower, but their calyx structure is slightly more open and they have a more resinous appearance than their bagged flower counterpart, those are actually one of the more desirable traits that we try and look for. It's not the most important, as we really are looking at aromatics and oil production as the most important, but these structural differences where they would be completely undesirable with bagged flower actually allow for more surface area for the extraction process. They’re just great plants to extract against or to make hash with. We do look for tighter structure and better calyx separation for different kinds of buds for plant health, especially in the breeding program. We produce all of our seeds in-house, so plants that don't have too much leaf on them make less work for the field team.

ES: Looking at the strains list on the Raw Garden website, of course, there's are a lot on here that are very well established—some crosses and familiar names. But as these unique strains are being created by Raw Garden, how do the naming conventions work?

KA: We do a lot of strains that are very well-known and pre-existing, but even with those strains we generally work on inbred lines. We’ll take, say, a Gorilla Glue female and another Gorilla Glue female, and we’ll turn one of those into a pollinating plant and then breed that back against the Gorilla Glue females so that we can produce seeds from it. Depending on the stability of the genetics, it just starts the whole process of selection. Less secure genetics or less well-defined genetics will generally tend to range and require a lot more selection. If we're moving forward genetics, especially in the inbred fashion from people that have done some of the work already, we like to keep those names as close to that as possible.

I only mention that because it does feed into the rest of the naming convention. So, obviously, if it comes from an inbred line and it's reflective of something in the market, we call it that name. If it's something from an inbred line that throws something completely random that is not reflective of what's in the market, we usually look to a name that somehow calls out the parentage or shows an association with that parentage.

From there, as we go out into cross-breeding and other things, it depends on how many times the plant's been worked. If the plant is in an early iteration of being crossed, we generally look for names inside of that strain's name and use parental naming constructs to come up with a name. Maybe Purple Punch and Jack Herer would become Jack Punch. But say that we've bred Jack Herer and Purple Punch together multiple times, and from the Jack Punch and the Jack Herer we get something that tastes completely different, that may become something derivative where we get into the world of maybe a little bit more fun—or we try and play off the name that we came to from that parental construct.

The other thing that's cool is when the plants are very similar but we think that there's just slight variation, we do what most breeders do, which is we just add a number. Even GG4 is just a reflection of someone's favorite cut. 

When we get further out on generational stuff and we're more into the weeds and we're in places where maybe we've got five or six things crossing back against three other things, we generally tend to kind of lean on three different pillars.

If it has a very distinct taste that our team can smell and call out, we generally like to use some sort of flavor descriptor to be a clear indicator to people that this is going to have some amount of citrus or cherry or berry. I'm very particular that it has to be apparent. You have to be able to smell it and feel like it's there in order for us to use the clear flavor descriptor in the naming. If that doesn't work—if we feel like the flavor is distinct and interesting, but maybe hard to put your finger on—then we started going to kind of more experience or emotional type of thing. We try and think of the energy of the experience. If it's a really fruity kind of light, fun smell, then maybe we're going to call it Island Splash or Tropical Mist or something that feels like it calls out the energy and the flavors that we're tasting.

The last one, which I would say probably makes up less than 5% of our strains, is just the completely random thing that isn't necessarily driven off of anything, but we just think that this tastes so amazing and that this is such a rare unicorm that we've got to come up with something cooler than just smashing mom and dad's names together. It’s just that special and that impactful, and we’ll come up with a fun name, like Pink Pegasus or something to that degree, which we just think has a lot of fun energy.

ES: Looking ahead to the summer, is there anything in particular that might be new coming up at Raw Garden or anything that you'd want to highlight?

KA: We’ve just released our crushed diamonds, which are just a phenomenal opportunity for people to try our concentrates and our wide array of aromatics and flavors. It’s a THCA isolate. The crushed diamonds have perfume-quality terpenes from our live resin extract. You get this beautiful aromatic experience. You can sprinkle it on a joint if you're not really a dabber, or you can throw it on top of a bowl, or you can dab it the traditional way.

Some of the strains that we have coming, like our Wedding Breath—or one of my favorites that we've had for a while now, that's really gotten stabilized, is our Funk N Fire, which is Leroy OG, which is a nice gassy strain and then Gorilla Glue 4, which has that chemical solvent taste, and you mix the two together and it's just like all funk and gas. For me, it's a really great representation of those heritage aromas that we like.

We've got one coming that doesn't have a name yet, and so we'll let the hype build a little bit behind it, but it has notes of black licorice or anise. The plant has this limitless capacity to surprise. Every year, we keep finding aromas that we didn't expect.