“We’re real big into learning,” said Casey Connell, owner of Contender Gardens.
Sure, this is almost as generic of a statement as “We grow some of the best weed around,” but if you spend some with Connell and his staff you’ll learn that their interest in knowledge goes beyond simply cultivating quality plants.
Think quality bugs instead, which is one of the ways that the Tier 1 producer in north Spokane is able to keep the “bad bugs” away and also avoid using pesticides.
Since 2013, Connell has performed extensive research into what types of insects are most beneficial when introduced at different stages of a plant’s growth. The role of the “better bugs” is to attack and devour the more damaging bugs that can impact a plant’s growth, lower its quality, and spread to other plants.
Different growing environments can lead to the presence of different types of insects, and also can correlate with different parts of a plant’s life cycle. For instance, certain insects will thrive in higher or lower humidity – and so will the ones that can combat them.
The sequence of insect introduction is also perfectly timed with each species’ life cycle so all bugs are gone by the time the plant is ready to be harvested.
“We’re all geeked out about this stuff,” Connell said.
He began growing cannabis in 2001, and earned degrees in economics and Portuguese from the University of New Mexico. He moved to Bend, Ore., during its building boom in the mid-2000s, where he worked with medical marijuana patients and built a cacti farm, which could be used in sustainable landscaping.
When the recession hit in 2008, he moved to Everett and opened a medical collective garden called Contender Agriculture. After the passage of Initiative 502, he decided to start attending various controlled environment agriculture schools including Oaksterdam University, where he fine-tuned his growing techniques. With these new credentials, he expanded his farm into Seattle.
When recreational licenses began being issued, he originally considered Quincy but found that Spokane was inexpensive and had good access to sunlight and labor.
His interest in incorporating insects started in 2013 when his medical crop was infected by a particularly nasty breed of mites.
“Nothing could eradicate them – not heat, not pesticides,” he said. “I couldn’t find any way to get rid of them, but then learned about a certain insect that loved to eat these types of mites. I tried them and those mites seemed to disappear.”
His years of experience and experimenting have paid off. Contender Gardens now grows about 30 strains which are sold statewide.
The location allows some plants to be sun-grown in hoophouses and greenhouses along with a few indoor rooms. The hoophouses allow for three sets of harvests a year. The indoor areas produce crops all year round.
“We try to see what people want and keep on growing it,” he said. “We also try to tailor our products to consumers who are more health-conscious.”
Contender Gardens also has a kitchen where the staff creates a variety of infused edibles under the Uncle Roaner’s brand of hard candies and soft chews. Creative flavors include everything from “Fancy Pink Lemonade” to “Peach Mango Chamoy,” a blend of spicy, sour and fruity. The Watermelon Chamoy is especially popular, alongside Blue Raspberry, Lemon Bar, Chai Latte and Bubble Gum.
Connell said a third processed edible product will be coming out later this year which will be exciting for customers.
He’s seeing the edible market slowly growing as the flower market remains competitive.
“We are selling a lot of sun-grown,” he said.
Since Connell started in the medical area, he remains eager to provide advice to medical marijuana patients about the strains that can best address certain conditions.
Later this year, the business will be releasing a high-CBD topical that can provide pain relief without high levels of THC. One blend will be sold at licensed cannabis retailers and another will be available at non-cannabis shops.
Today, Connell enjoys educating the community about cannabis, whether it’s individual patients or larger groups across the country. He recently returned from speaking about how to run a successful cultivation operation at the U.S. Cannabis Conference and Expo in Las Vegas, and has been a speaker at several other gatherings about bio-control methods, including the Cannabis Sustainability Symposium, the Cannabis Collaborative Conference and the U.S. Cannabis Conference in Miami.
He and the Contender Gardens staff continue to research new growing techniques, including certain intensity of lights, organic cultivation, live soil, biochar, strain selections and auto-flower varieties. Plus he continues to have interest in learning new methods of biocontrol and implementation of insects, plus general sustainable practices.
“We try to be as green and clean as we can,” Connell said.
Subscribe to the Morning Review newsletter
Get the day’s top headlines delivered to your inbox every morning by subscribing to our newsletter.