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Breeder Diaries: Ken Estes

Breeder Diaries: Ken Estes

BREEDERS COME AND GO, sometimes as quickly as a new kush appears and disappears. Anybody remember Obama Kush? And there’s a reason. In the rush to capitalize on people’s thirst for something new, perhaps that 60% THC strain that’s making the rounds, unscrupulous breeders take short cuts and release seeds way before they’re ready or worse, just slap a catchy name on an old favorite, and boom, you’re a star.

And then there’s the special ones, who do it slow, methodically, right and in the process they become legends, with a stable of legendary strains that won’t soon be forgotten. Meet Dr. Greenthumb…

Welcome Ken. Your entry into the cannabis world came as a result of a personal tragedy, an accident which left you paralyzed at an age where you were just starting your life. How did cannabis help?

When I first got injured, I was paralyzed from the neck down, and the doctors had me on so many pharmaceuticals that I didn’t feel right at all. I had been in the hospital for four months and it just wasn’t working. All the pills they gave me were making me sick and I couldn’t sleep or couldn’t eat. I grew frustrated and angry and one day a group of Vietnam vets told my orderly to push my gurney to their circle.  They said, “try this” and they passed me a joint and I took my first medical hit of cannabis in the winter of ‘76. I felt instant relief, so good that I asked the orderly to push me back to my room where I slept all night. It was my first all night sleep since my accident. I woke up in the morning with an appetite and I was able to eat but when I told the doctors what had happened they laughed at me.  I was trying to tell them it was medicine and it helped but they didn’t believe me.  From then on, I kept self medicating with cannabis and it allowed me to eliminate all the pills I was on. And back then I had access to some of the best strains in the world Columbian Gold, Panama Red, Thai Stick. That was some of the best medicine I had ever experienced. That was my first real medical experience with cannabis. 

So veterans at your hospital were responsible for introducing you to cannabis as medicine. What did you think at the time as conventional treatment wasn’t working? Were you skeptical, hopeful?

I was willing to try anything at that time and I was always hopeful that is the type of person, I am always hopeful.

You represent a different type of cannabis breeder as it has always been about medicine and pain relief before commercial concerns. How does this affect the type of work you’re doing, specifically selections?

I’m still staying true to working with the strains that I’ve developed because I believe in their medical capabilities and properties. I continue to work with these types of genetics because they have so many different medical properties and traits, and as we find out more about the medicinal benefits they will have many more applications and uses for patients. I’m not looking for the commercial appeal of it. I’m staying focused on the medicinal benefits like sleep, appetite, pain relief and cures for things. I believe that Grand Daddy Purp has all of these traits.

Although cannabis has helped with a partial recovery, you still have some physical limitations due to the accident. How important is having a team around you in order to keep Gran Daddy Genetics rolling along?

I’ve always used a small team and we have always done things on the boutique level. The way a family vineyard would run is something comparable. But now with the demand and interest in the medicinal properties of Grand Daddy Purp, it is essential for me to get this to as many patients as we can. It is imperative that people around me work diligently to help me achieve this goal. I’ve never needed the help as much as I need it now as far as helping me spread the word and medicine of Grand Daddy Purp because of the demand. The public already knows we are successful with the demand of GDP and my other strains.

Before you embarked on breeding, you left your regular occupation to open a collective. How important was this period towards assessing which types of strains patients wanted?

The first time I started getting input from patients it helped me to identify and focus on specific strains and traits that the patients and I wanted to see. This has always been a valuable source of information, being able to talk to the patients and get their input on their ailments and what helped them. It would be no different than a doctor getting feedback or data from their patients on what helps them.

During this period you also became a vocal activist and patient advocate often at risk to yourself and your work. What’s it like seeing the progress throughout the US? We’re almost there.

I wake up everyday excited about where we are and I sort of forget about the struggles it took to get here although you never truly forget about them. I’m so excited about everything now. It was over twenty years ago, when I started as an activist and began trying to help movement continue forward. I’ve seen a lot of injustices with this plant and I got tired of seeing patients get in trouble for medicating and using it. I look forward to the day that we can all enjoy and use this plant without fear.

You live and work in California, home to many amazing cultivators and strains. It’s also the largest production state in the country and as such requires a different set of regulations from; let’s say Colorado, which is dwarfed by comparison. What kind of legalization model do you want to see in Cali and are you hopeful that we will have a system that protects both growers and patients?

I want to see growing on every level from the individual grandma who wants to grow a few plants in her backyard to the twenty-acre farmer who wants to grow on a bigger scale. I want to see cities and local authorities have an open dialogue with their residents and patients. I would like to see the industry create jobs, pay taxes and help revenue streams, to help the local communities as well as the State. I would also like to see growing go in a direction towards organics and a healthier alternative for patients. I don’t want to see big corporations come in and take it over. I would like to see California use a model similar to the wine industry where small boutique vineyards can exist amidst the bigger companies. I don’t want to see only big guys thrive, I want to see everybody thrive. I am hopeful this can happen.

California also represents the largest research opportunity in the nation with decades of growing experience and patient feedback at your fingertips. It must be vital to have that wealth of information readily available.

That’s why it is important for California to lead the way legally and do things right. We have led the way medically but now there are recreational states and we are hesitant on moving forward with recreational which is ridiculous since we are the leaders. It should not slow down now. We need to forge ahead to a more open society. Where people have rights and they’re not persecuted and prosecuted for something like using a natural plant and taking away the rights to choose how to medicate or a healthier recreational alternative for ourselves.

You are best known for Grand Daddy Purps, a variety that is highly coveted. Tell us a bit about her creation and evolution.

It was given to me by one of my good Native American friends from the Blackfoot tribe and he got it from the Pomo tribe from their medicine man. They did not have a name for it. It was an eighteen-year old variety and they used it for their ceremonies. It was not a big producer and it was dark as midnight and I had not seen anything like this ever before. The smell was of overwhelming muskiness and it reminded me of the good smell of the Thai stick that I had loved years before in the 70s, so I brought it to my club in Oakland, and I put it on my shelves and called it Grand Daddy Purp. People would ask, “What is wrong with this marijuana?” “Why does it look like this?” “The color looks dark.” They thought it was bad. They had never seen that much purple before. It was the most beautiful vibrant purple I had ever seen. So, I gave my patients a money back guarantee stating that if it wasn’t good for them please bring it back to me and I would refund them or trade for another strain. Not one person ever brought anything back. I saw how patients raved about it and that is when I knew I had something special. It was by far the best purple I ever had and that is when I asked for a cutting of it. He gave me a few cuttings of and I took it to Humboldt. The demand grew over time and pretty soon everybody was growing it and everybody wanted it. Than I started entering cups and winning them with it and I started crossing it and than I began making new crosses and those strains won cups. It has become so popular it has been in movies; it was on an episode of Weeds, and it became a favorite of celebrities and rappers such as Snoop Dogg.

Please tell us what’s so special about Grandaddy Purps. What sets her apart?

It is that special quality that is hard to quantify. It has an amazing smell so there is aromatherapy from it. The plant starts its healing from the very beginning, from the smell and the visual of that beautiful dark purple with crystals everywhere, almost like a piece of art. When you touch it, the finished flower is rock hard and when you medicate with it the flower tastes as good as it smells. It just covers all of your senses and it gives you a euphoric feeling which is part of why patients say it helps them so much with the pain relief.

You don’t have a large number of varieties in your seedbank indicating that you don’t breed for popularity’s sake. What factors determine what you work with?

I keep working with the same strains to try and unleash certain traits that I’ve identified which help patients. I haven’t found another strain that helps so much as my GDP, so I will continue to work with it and cultivating the same traits. As far as what I look for, sometimes it is the leaf pattern, the shape and size of the stalks, the spacing of internodes and other. One thing you will notice if you have grown my strains enough you will see a lot of similarities in them.

Other than the Grand Daddy Purps, which strain are you most proud of creating?

I’m most proud of Candyland as it carries on the GDP traits but also increases yield. It is a beautiful strain.

Take us on virtual tour of your grow room. What can we see going on there?

You will see different stages of growth and you will see many rooms such as flowering rooms, male rooms mother and father rooms and a cloning room. All are kept separate and you will see buds everywhere. It is very clean and well lit, almost like a laboratory. It is very organized, filled with plants without any bugs or pathogens. You will smell fresh air and the air around you will moving. You will not be smelling stale air nor feeling too much humidity.

What are you currently working on that SKUNK readers might find exciting?

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I found a beautiful Candyland male and I’m back crossing it into my current Candyland. Then I will be crossing it with some other special strains for us to do some exclusive limited release stuff that will be coming out very soon and I’m very excited. I’m more excited about my upcoming genetics than I have ever been.

What are a few strains that you like from other breeders, something you might wish you’d created?

I love the terpene heavy strains like Tangie, Lemon Haze and I’m always looking for the pre-98’ Bubba and Skunk stuff. I love to work with purple strains. I like Chemdawg and Fire OG. These are some strains that I’m currently working with.

Who are some people you look up to within the breeding world as well as some of your heroes from the activist side of things?

I have a lot of respect for many individuals in this industry like Jack Herer, Brownie Mary, Mila Jansen, Dennis Peron, Ed Rosenthal, Terrance (DA of SF) Hallinan, Arjan from Greenhouse, Ben and Allen Dronkers, DJ Short, Bob Marley, Mark Emery, Big Mike from Advanced Nutrients and the people who have helped give birth to our industry.

Tell us what the future holds for you and your endeavors.

I’m looking forward to the evolution of my brand and excited about getting my genetics to the entire industry. The sky is the limit. I’m definitely excited.

After all is said and done, what do you want to be known for?

I want to be known as an activist responsible for helping to end the prohibition of cannabis and helping to enlighten and bring forth the knowledge about medical marijuana. From the genetics side, I’m looking forward to continuing my research and development of my old and new strains and products. And, I plan on smoking a lot more bud.

Any tips for the aspiring breeder?

You have to stay focused on the end goal of what you are trying to accomplish because this isn’t something that happens overnight, it will take years if not an entire lifetime to dial everything in. You need to enjoy the process, educate yourself and pay attention to all the fine details. Don’t take it too seriously you need to enjoy the journey because that is part of the healing process.

Thanks for your time. Any last words?

This is an exciting time in our country when the prohibition of cannabis is ending and a lot of new industries are forming around it. Find what areas that you want to participate in and get the knowledge and figure out what areas that you want to be involved in because this is history in the making. There are many opportunities for everyone. So let’s all enjoy it! Make sure to work hard and aim high for your goals. Always stay positive and focused!


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