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Take a tour through a top-secret European breeding facility

Smokin Moose

Fallen Cannabis Warrior
Ever crack open a bud and wonder at the smell of fresh blueberry or grapefruit or mango wafting up to your nose? Breeder Steve has, and providing the world with the tastiest THC is his life's work.

Breeder Steve had a dream of producing the world's best organic pot, so in 1994 he founded the Spice of Life seed company from his home in Canada. Relocating to a small country in Europe, Steve found a place with plenty of space indoors and out to realize his vision. His main focus from the beginning has always been aroma and taste--while never forgetting about potency, of course, which is always of supreme importance. Now grown the world over, varieties with names like Sweet Tooth, Strawberry Blonde, Shishkaberry and Sweet Pink Grapefruit give you a sense of where Steve is coming from.

I first heard about Spice of Life from my friend NYPD, a Canadian cultivator and photographer. This was 1997, when I was working with the Detroit Danksters. Together we grew out five SOL strains with very impressive results. These strains helped others to spawn new varieties that now dominate parts of the East Coast. Steve and I had only corresponded electronically until the 2001 Cannabis Cup, when we finally met face-to-face. It became obvious to us both that I must come and see his facility.

So world-renowned bud photographer Andre Grossman and I packed for a trip to Europe. It's always "a trip" going to another country (at Steve's request, we've kept the destination a secret), but after a long flight and several hours in the car I was salivating at the thought of what Steve would have for us to smoke. We drove up a windy mountain road, and, after making several wrong turns, came upon a building that matched the description of his warehouse. I approached and was greeted by several of Steve's friends, who were all expecting us. Inside Steve was sitting blissfully behind his desk smoking one of his typical tobacco/hash cigarettes.

His property is high on a hill; from his office window you can see down into the village and the valley beyond. At the warehouse, spring cleaning had just begun. Out back, workers had started a fire and were burning a pile of old plants and brush. Inside others were cleaning and counting seeds. I was presented with an elegant glass bubbler nicely loaded with a dark patty of homemade hash. We began smoking and talked for hours as he showed us around.

What does it take to breed truly fine cannabis? It requires an acute sense of the universe and unwavering attention to detail. Of all the people I've met who consider themselves breeders of cannabis, none embrace the spirit of organics quite like Breeder Steve. Never one to follow the traditional path, Steve began experimenting with a technique he calls "guppy-ponics" to feed all his plants. Essentially bioponics (biological hydroponics), the name reflects the fact that all the nutrients Steve's plants need come from the water in fish tanks that have been stocked with guppies and other fish.

As fishes live, they eat, then poop. Over a short period of time, fish waste converts itself into all the essential nutrients plants need. Steve drains the water from his tanks to water the plants. Then he tops off the fish tanks and the process starts again. The plants themselves are not grown in one particular style. Steve has used this method to feed plants on ebb-and-flow tables and pots filled with grow rocks. He does prefer, as I do, large buckets filled with a high-grade soilless medium. After feeding a 4,000-watt room exclusively off a 90-gallon tank for over two years, Steve learned exactly how to make this system swim.


Zen Grow-Master Steve explains: "Conventional aquarium wisdom dictates 1 inch of fish (measured head to tail) per gallon of water, but I've happily kept up to five times that amount, or 5 inches of fish per gallon. Feed the fish well using plenty of frozen and live food. Cheaper food like pellets and flakes leave their scent in the herb, so I recommend only occasional feedings with these products."

"How often do you feed the fish?" I asked.

"Every three days I put 100 feeder goldfish or guppies in the tank. That's a lot of fish emulsion, but filtered, not raw." Steve uses a wide assortment of life in his tanks. His collection is comprised mostly of cichlids, goldfish and guppies, but also a variety of algae-eaters and other assorted sweet-water tropicals. There are also plants, crawdads, crabs, shrimp, snails and eels. "Oscars are a fish that do well and grow large quickly, which is great for larger systems. They will eat a lot of fish--it's best to raise feeders for them. I have gone so far as to feed my Oscars an entire hamburger, which was gone in minutes. That's my idea of bioponics, to be able to drop in hot meat and a sesame seed bun and turn it into kind bud."

The conversion of a hamburger into fertilizer is all taken care of by nature. "It takes about 12 days for the nitrogen cycle to complete itself. The ammonia in the fish waste is converted to nitrite by aerobic bacteria (nitrosonomas). Then, by the colonization of another aerobic bacteria (nitrobacter), nitrite is converted to nitrate. Nature is perfect, if chaotic. The growth of these bacteria is virtually unstoppable anywhere the right conditions occur on Earth. The natural filter of water is plants. This cycle is the basis of life on our planet. The waste of aerobic bacteria is nutrient. It is not difficult to comprehend--have you seen the growth of plants by a rich pond?"

Rather than try to ascertain and then apply changing levels of nutrients during different growth phases, Steve ensures that a light amount of all nutrients is constantly available and never depleted, meaning he doesn't change his mix when he switches to flowering.

"The best method is to have all stages of growth feeding from one reservoir. This creates more of a balanced demand on the available [low] nutrient levels. This reservoir passes through the flowering room, then drains into the mother buckets for another filtering. This water also works great for clones. In the event of a larger ratio in flowering, I add a nylon sock stuffed with guanos, meals and naturally occurring minerals. This soon becomes a green log of algae with a dozen algae-eaters feeding furiously. This boosts the PPM as high as 400! It's usually around 350, but it doesn't mean much in bioponics."

Steve hopes to have a book with complete details about guppy-ponics out late this fall. During our visit there was one tank feeding a room with about 5000 watts. Unfortunately, most of the plants came down a few weeks before we arrived. The plants we did photograph were beautiful but had obviously been held over for our arrival. The proof is in the smoke, and I'll reiterate just this once: The cured Sweet Pink Grapefruit nugs were like candy.

Relaxing at home one evening with his family Steve prepared an awesome meal of costolette e filetti d'agnello. He even spent time making special roux (sauce) for the meat, a cheese sauce from scratch for the noodles and a fresh salad. All the while we drank wine and talked about the future of cannabis. A future where no one smokes grass anymore, just pure bubble-hash. We made several batches while I was there and sampled more varieties than I can remember. Absent the vegetative matter, the high is exquisitely clean. And so are your lungs.

My absolute favorite knockout indica strain is Sweet Tooth. Steve's been breeding and improving the Tooth since 1995. The fourth generation of Sweet Tooth is now available to the world. "Sweet Tooth has evolved through many lines, and the current version number three is a third backcross to the Sweet Pink Grapefruit mother. It originated through the sacred union of my favorite clone, the Sweet Pink Grapefruit, and the most resinous male I had ever seen, a very special Blueberry specimen. This fourth-generation seed is much more like the original SPG mother; the Blue influence is much less than the first generation, which showed a lot more Blueberry traits, as do the inbred lines that are still the original 50/50."

I think every grower should grow Spice of Life. Another SOL favorite of mine is Strawberry Blonde. This is the best high-yielding sativa for indoor growers. "Lately, I've been working on the rereleases of old Spice favorites like Big Treat, Tropical Treat, Sweet Skunk and Strawberry Blonde. Several new lines are coming out in conjunction with DJ Short, to be known as The Joint Project releases. These include Moonshine Rocket Fuel, Velvet Luna, Blue Satellite, Rockaberry and Rosebud. These are very exciting hybrids--you have not heard the last of them!"

But how does Steve breed his "smokable fruit"? How does he isolate and stabilize the desired characteristics of a particular variety?

"Obviously, the more seeds you have to select from, the better the selection. A breeding program that starts with 100,000 seeds is certainly better than one that starts with 1,000. I generally start 500—1000 seeds per line. These are thinned out each time at three transplantings. Only the hardiest females get planted in the ground for further inspection. Five to 10 males are kept separately for further testing, soon reduced to two or three. Overall, I'll plant and tag at least 10,000 seeds this spring. Constant inspection of the group eventually narrows down the search to the most ideal specimens. In the fall, I may keep 10 plants to use in the future, if that." As Breeder Steve says, "I cull more plants each season than most people will ever grow."

Science is beginning to play a role as well. "At the moment, I'm working to acquire new lab equipment that will aid in the quest of serious genetic development," Steve explains. "We won't be the only lab mapping the cannabis genome, but we will be the first seed company to do so. We'll start with the genes that control the production of aroma compounds. This allows us to find the specimens with the greatest propensity for specific aromas at a young age. This way, so much more can be achieved in the same space than if every single seed were grown to maturity. We can identify the plant with the most dominant Sweet Pink Grapefruit aroma, etc., at the seedling stage. This speeds up the process and eliminates much of the trial and error associated with a breeding program. Exponentially greater results in fixing and strengthening the traits we seek will be the benefit."

"What else do you plan to use this equipment for?"

"One interesting application will be to further our study of mold resistance. From several lines I have kept 'twins.' These are sisters that are identical in all respects except one, susceptibility to mold or mildew, meaning one of the plants is entirely resistant and the other is easily affected. To identify these genes would be a great advance."

Steve's not doing all this just to have the best pot to smoke or to make lots of money. He's already done both of those things. So where does the motivation come from that keeps him working so hard every day? "I enjoy working with and collecting many families of cannabis. I know I can grow better quality herb on a commercial scale than most, and I look forward to the day when cannabis is produced for enjoyment everywhere. Everywhere the world is in trouble, so the healing herbs must become easily available to spread a little peace."

Kyle Kushman
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