Breeding a new strain of cannabis is like painting a picture: the end result is a culmination of the medium and colors you used, the techniques you applied and the vision you had when you sat down at the canvas.
And many of the strains you find on the market — even some of the top-shelf offerings from boutique dispensaries — are the cannabis equivalent of landscape paintings by students of Bob Ross; competent reproductions and variations on the same theme with minor stylistic flourishes.
But if the average commercial cannabis breeder is tweaking the same suite of techniques and colors to bring us new, predictably similar takes on “happy little trees,” Mean Gene, chief breeder at Aficionado and Freeborn Selections, is a seed-popping Pablo Picasso — obliterating limitations through sheer creative will and redefining the boundaries of his craft.
The Master at Work
Leo Stone, Founder and CEO of Aficionado, is friends and business partners with Gene — their first collaboration was the 2014 Emerald Cup 2nd Place-winning Black Lime Reserve. Together they’ve turned Aficionado into a gold standard for boutique cannabis.
Stone said Gene’s connection to Mendocino grow culture and his encyclopedic cannabis knowledge make him a true master.
“This guy’s been doing this since he was five or six — he’s been doing this over 30 years. His mom has been out there in the field cultivating and Gene’s just a product of that culture,” he said. “Your OG growers who came out in the ’70s and everything? Those guys are like our OGs. When they have problems, they go to Mean Gene.”
One thing that comes up in nearly every discussion about Gene is his exceptional palate (his taste and nose for great phenotypes) but also his phenomenal palette — the broad spectrum of colors he pulls from when he “paints.”
“Gene’s a brilliant breeder in the sense that he has a picture in his mind that he’d like to achieve and really works over time to get that picture painted, not just putting things together,” said Kevin Jodrey, founder and cultivation director at Wonderland Nursery and Port Royal Farm.
Jodrey has worked closely with Gene since 2012 when they met through Emerald Cup founder, Tim Blake. His connections to, and knowledge of, the cannabis plant and business run deep. He started cultivating in New York in 1978, “caught a case” in 1983 and moved to Humboldt in 1992, where he’s lived (and grown) ever since.
And he says, without a doubt, what Gene breeds is some of the most incredible stuff he’s ever seen. He said that isn’t an accident — unlike a lot of the “breeding” done by less skilled and scrupulous cultivators.
“Most people in the seed game are really neighbors. I have a female dog chained to a fence in heat and your dog is a male dog you let out of the house and it f*cked my dog, and now you’re calling yourself a dog breeder, and you’re not,” Jodrey said.
A Really Fast Car
Stone said meeting Gene was an immensely rewarding, if somewhat humbling, experience.
“I was the first main breeder for Aficionado,” he said. “It’s like when you have a fast car and you ride around town and think it’s really fast. Then somebody shows up with a really fast car — that’s Gene.”
Stone and Gene both tell roughly the same story about meeting each other: it was after Aficionado had won the 2012 Emerald Cup with their Chemdawg Special Reserve.
“So I would up hearing about Aficionado because, of course, they won the cup,” Gene said. “I figured they must have something pretty cool going on, so I told Leo I wanted to grab some seeds and wound up meeting him.”
Stone said they met at a super local spot in the area.
“We went to this really local place that mostly only locals know in Ligget – a really small place that most people just drive by,” Stone said. “I had some really good weed… So I walk in the place and I feel like my flowers are awesome. Then one of the guys, he’s smoking on some flowers and its some of the loudest shit I’ve ever smelled — and I’m not even smelling it, just the second hand smoke.”
Stone asked the guy what he was smoking and he said it was called Cherry Limeade, “it’s from my boy Gene.”
Gene remembers everybody was raving about the Cherry Limeade that night, but he hadn’t even tried it yet.
“And everyone said ‘if you’d entered that in the cup you would have won. Why didn’t you enter that?’” Gene said.
Stone remembers saying the exact same thing.
“I meet Gene, he shows me the weed and I was like, ‘Dude if you’d entered this in the Emerald Cup I wouldn’t have won,’” he said.
Keeping the Fire Alive
Bamboo, Co-Founder and breeder at Coastal Seed Company, has been cultivating cannabis since 1996. Like everyone, he couldn’t say enough about how skilled Gene is or how good the cannabis he breeds is.
“Everything he produces is just superb, flavorful, aromatic and oily. Out of all the breeders, he’s one of those guys who really knows what he’s looking for,” Bamboo said. “He’s not just out there chucking pollen. He can describe everything about a plant, texture, structure, leaf size… obviously the guy spends a lot of time with his plants, he has a passion for it.”
But he said the most remarkable thing about Gene was his generosity with the incredible genetics he’s collected.
“I had an article in Skunk magazine… So one question I get asked is what am I looking for in a strain? So I talk about what I called ‘The Unicorn,’ just a pun because I was demanding too much from a strain,” he said. “So Gene comes up to me at an Emerald Cup and hands me a pack of seeds and I say what’s that? And he says ‘It’s that unicorn you’re looking for.’”
This generosity comes up again and again — it’s almost uncanny how uniformly generous, kind and caring he is in everybody’s description of his character.
“For someone of his stature he has no ego,” Bamboo said. “When I think about how good of a person I want to be, his name always pops up in my head. Such a kind, giving person — I can’t say enough good about Gene. When I grow up I want to be just like Gene.”
The lack of ego is noticeable when you talk to Gene — he’s just deeply, truly, borderline obsessively fascinated by genetics, and not just when it comes to cannabis.
“What’s always been really interesting to me is how really focused people are on cannabis,” he said. “Can you name a single famous rose gardener? A single famous apple farmer? And I see them as just as interesting.”
But Gene’s generosity with his genetics isn’t just “nice,” it’s key to the survival of quality cannabis.
“These are like colors in the rainbow,” Bamboo said. “They’re foundational genetics that a lot of people don’t have access to anymore and he’s keeping it alive, and passing the flame, he’s not a hoarder.”
And just as he’s modest and unpretentious about his own stature in the industry, he doesn’t discriminate based on popularity or success when passing that flame.
“There’s all these people all over the place who have bumped into Gene and received genetics from Gene that the kings of the industry would cut a finger off to get,” Jodrey said.
And in that way Gene is like Bob Ross — creating colors for aspiring painters to work from, helping them create beauty from the medium he’s so passionate about and then spreading that knowledge as far and wide as he can.
But when it comes to the flavors and sensations he creates, Gene is all Picasso.
“Gene isn’t a line stepper. He doesn’t cross lines when it comes to terpenes, he gets in an airplane and flies over lines,” Stone said. “With him it’s extreme flavors in all directions. You can smell his flowers for like five minutes and just keep peeling it back and revealing more levels of flavor.”
Jodrey believes Gene’s familial connection to cannabis cultivation gives him an edge — that he was literally born to grow the best bud. Like the marijuana masterpieces he creates, the secret is in Gene’s genes.
“I believe in epigenetics, man” he said. “Gene is epigenetically superior for reefer production because he came from a reefer production family.”
But as far as Gene is concerned, all of his success boils down to a sincere love for and fascination with the possibilities of the cannabis plant.
“It’s biology and life, it’s a nice thing to have in your life, to learn about and enjoy and, you know, interact with,” he said. “As opposed to just looking at is as something to take advantage and gain from. When you really look at it that way, you just get so much more out of it.”
TELL US, have you tried any of Mean Gene’s creations?