The Swiss experience

Purple skunk: hardy with a strong central stem that can hold a large bud.Purple skunk: hardy with a strong central stem that can hold a large bud.Swiss bunkweed
My first experience in Switzerland was during the late summer of 1997. I organized a trip to see the fields of pot with Milla Jensen, inventor of the Pollinator and proprietor of Amsterdam’s Hemp Hotel, and Chris Simunek, cultivation editor of High Times Magazine. We rented a car and went into Zurich to buy some herb.

We purchased a small “Skunk aroma pillow” at a store called Mango. The proprietor was a slight fellow wearing a Hawaiian shirt and sporting orange and red hair. The guard was broad, 6’5″ with a skinhead haircut, camouflage outfit and a face untouched by emotion. Later I found out that the proprietor sponsored the recent “Droleg” plebiscite to make all drugs legal in Switzerland. It lost, but opened the debate on drug policy.

We went back to the car, rolled up a joint and attempted to get high. The stuff was bunk weed.

Bunkweed in Bern

We travelled on, stopping in Bern to see our friend Roman, who was developing an automated grow space. He had grown buds which filled several 120 litre garbage bags, which he expected to sell for about $400US a pound. He took us upstairs to show us the weed drying in the attic, and then we came down to the living room of the small collective consisting of six young men. It was dimly lit but surprisingly neat.

Purple skunk: hardy with a strong central stem that can hold a large bud.(image: Plants from the clone room were recently planted in this greenhouse which uses high pressure sodium lamps to supplement sunlight. The plants are in 8″ containers filled with a peat based planting mix. They are fertigated using drip emitters. The black-out curtains in the back protect plants from continuously lit clones.)

Roman packed a pipe and I took a deep toke. I held the smoke, then blew it out, but experienced no head change. The glands were shooting blanks into my lungs. So far we were zero for two in this country.

I asked him why he grew this material. He told me he had bought the seeds from SWIHTCO and he could sell garbage bags of these buds for the equivalent of $400US a pound so he was satisfied. He said he planned to use different seeds next time.

The guys asked us to stay for dinner. The kitchen was clean. We were almost tempted to eat there since we were getting hungry, Then I saw the bachelor stew pot, thought of the bunk weed, and decided to go.

Success!

The next day we were in Biel and stopped at the Blackman. Adrian, the proprietor, was the consummate host with snacks, libations, a choice of hashes and grasses. This proved that we could get high in Switzerland!

Purple skunk: hardy with a strong central stem that can hold a large bud.(image: The partners rented a small field inside town. It was planted with an indica-sativa hybrid. Clones were transplanted in early July. Ten weeks later each plant has a major central bud.)

Wishful thinking

The next day we arrived at Cannabioland, formerly SWIHTCO, run by Shirin Patterson. SWIHTCO had been in business several years. This year (1997) she had made arrangements with a Swiss farmer, Armand. She would do most of the managerial work, while he would grow the crop.

We were there at the right time to see and taste the results. The fields were in the midst of harvest and there was a considerable amount of dried material. We arrived at the farmhouse and were greeted by Patterson and the workers and were invited to join them for dinner.

Pruned 75-100 cm plants ready for picking.Pruned 75-100 cm plants ready for picking.First I packed a pipe and took in a deep toke of a tight looking bud. It had a slightly sweet smell that was familiar but I couldn’t place it at first. Then I recognized the smell of hemp in the Hungrian fields which I visited in 1991 and 1993. After a few more tokes I knew that I was at the mother-lode of the Swiss bunk weed.

I saw a pint-sized wide-mouthed jar three quarters filled with glands. Using a spoon I took enough to get me totally stoned on good North American weed, placed it in a pipe and lit the siftings. After two tokes I thought I felt something but it quickly evaporated into wishful thinking. You see, the three of us had not brought any other weed. We were dependent on this material if we were to get high.

My companions, Milla and Chris, were sharing the experience. To quote a Fugs tune, “I huffed, I puffed, I toked and I choked, but after a while my heart was really broke, ’cause I couldn’t get high?”

Bunkweed & BS

The next day we went to the fields which were being harvested as each plant reached its peak. There were plants to match descriptions of Mexican, Colombian, various hybrids and Indicas. A melange of bunk weed, each with a distinctive smell but not quite pot. I asked Shirin and her sister why they were growing these varieties. They told me that these were “medical grades” and not for recreation. Strange, since they were selling this crap to unsuspecting teenagers driving up to the property.

Pruned 75-100 cm plants ready for picking.(image: These plants are in a race with time. Will they get enough light to finish flowering, or will their growth taper off before harvest? They will probably be picked as immature buds ? better than no buds at all.)

During two conversations they told me three different ways that they obtained the seeds. First, that it consisted of Swiss pot grown since the 1970’s by Swiss mountain growers, then that it was a mix of Swiss and Dutch varieties, and finally that it was the survivors of Dutch varieties grown in open field tests.

The morning of the last day Milla and I went to the “American” field, which was subcontracted to some people from Oregon and Washington, led by Chris Iverson. They were proud of their material. One fellow said, “Look how purple this is.” Another said, “Feel how tight it is.” It was like going through the looking glass. This stuff was totally useless and they were extolling its virtues. They forgot that 9 10 x 0 still equals 0. They rolled us a joint which we eventually tossed from the car in disgust.

I met CC photographer Barge in this field and he said the stuff wasn’t great but could get you high. I disagree. On a scale of 1 to 10 I rated this a 0. Bunk weed.

A hoop greenhouse with plants in two stages of flowering.A hoop greenhouse with plants in two stages of flowering.You can’t always get what you want

SWIHTCO had been producing this seed and selling it to naive unsuspecting farmers for years. Farmers who know nothing about weed have no way of knowing the quality of what they are producing ? it all looks the same to them.

On the way to Germany and Cannabusiness we stopped at a hemp and pot shop in a small town. I asked the sales people how the different grades sold. The clerk and owner agreed that the Dutch imports sold the fastest, then high-grade Swiss, then Moroccan hash and low grade Swiss. So the Swiss people know what’s good, they just can’t always get it.

Good Swiss growers

I had been back in the US about a month when a fellow named Peter called from Switzerland. He said he had a few acres there and thought I’d have a different experience than the one he had heard I had.

A member of the harvest crew cutting down one of the big plants on the perimeter of a field.A member of the harvest crew cutting down one of the big plants on the perimeter of a field.In July 1998 I visited the site for the first time. Rather than the few acres he had promised, I found that Peter was a member of a three person partnership with extensive operations. They include several greenhouse locations and many separate fields. I was so impressed I returned again in September for a second look.

Originally, the partners were operating a struggling nursery. It grew out plugs of ivy, geraniums, begonias and other bedding plants imported from Portugal. Then one of the partners suggested adding cannabis to its roster. Using the same techniques as they used for other nursery stock, the partners were very successful with cannabis, and quickly expanded from one site to several greenhouse complexes and fields all over the area.

All the partners were familiar with marijuana and they had a foot in the horticultural area. This combined knowledge gave them a jump-start on many of their competitors. They knew good pot from bad and they knew how to grow healthy plants.

They started with some relatively high quality Swiss seeds and clones. This included the skunk and the indica I had smoked at the hotel. Most of the varieties that they grow now are the result of a seed acquisition trip to Amsterdam which they took shortly after their first crop. They picked up Northern Lights and White family hybrids, a Big Bud hybrid and several other varieties from several companies. They also were given some seeds by local headshop owners.

The manicure room: buds are exposed by expert trimmers.The manicure room: buds are exposed by expert trimmers.As the varieties matured they were evaluated for quality and yield. Only the best varieties were cloned out.

When I visited in July, the cloning, planting and re-planting operations were in full swing. By September all energy was focused on the harvest and its aftermath.

Most of the profits from previous crops have been plowed back into growing the business. This has been accomplished by renting nearby greenhouse facilities and land suitable for cultivation.

Smoking Swiss Sativa

On my first trip to Peter’s farm I arrived in Zurich as scheduled. My hosts were not to meet me until the next day, so I checked into the Hotel California and decided to take a short nap. A few hours later I was about to leave my room, but as I turned the door handle I could hear a package drop on the other side. My hosts had made arrangements for the local head shop to deliver a little care package, which included Purple Skunk and an Indica, along with papers, pipe and lighter. I postponed my walk to test the material.

The manicure room: buds are exposed by expert trimmers.(image: This 2000 sq. meter greenhouse was watered using nutrient flow techniques. The frames holding the black curtains above originally held 40% shade cloth. They were fitted with black-out curtains to regulate day length. The young plants were not expected to yield very much because of the low light levels.)

The two Skunk buds were each about an inch and a half long and half an inch round. They were dense and I could see the attached glands shimmer on the bud. As I broke a piece off, a shower of glands cascaded through the air. I filled the small bowl and lit it. The smoke had a smooth, almost sweet taste. Then I felt the soar from a high-quality, Sativa high. A very pleasant state to go out and explore the city. On a scale of 1-10 I gave it a 7.5.

When I got back to the hotel I lit up the Indica hybrid. Rather than the smooth sweetness of the Skunk, this smoke was pungent and expanding. After finishing my cough, I realized how high I was. This was the kind of high that made my mind swirl as it created its own kaleidoscope. Very pleasant, sensual and a little wild. Rated: 7.

Most of the buds I smoked ranged between a 6-8. Nothing was higher than 8.5, which I suspect was a Northern Lights with a touch of Haze. Not only did quality vary by variety, but also by season of harvest. The highest quality buds were harvested mid-summer, during July and the first half of August. Buds from earlier harvests were smaller and more leafy. Late harvest buds had a problem ripening because of cool temperatures and lack of bright light.

Buds are hung to dry for 10 days in a curing barn.Buds are hung to dry for 10 days in a curing barn.Cultivation techniques

The greenhouses ranged from rooms larger than 1,000 square meters with glass or high-tech polycarbonate panels, to 5 x 20 meter hoop units. The same standard greenhouse planting technique in each space was adopted for the new plants. Some of these included a drip unit serving each 6-8 inch container filled with a standard peat based planting mix.

Another greenhouse used a nutrient film technique commonly used in large North American greenhouses. A layer of thick, felt-like material covered by thin black polyethylene perforated sheet with tiny holes, is placed on a growing table. A controlled flow of water or water-nutrient solution is released at the higher end. It streams through the fabric. When the containers are placed on the plastic-covered fabric their weight pushes it down, creating a puddle. This water seeps up through the planting medium, keeping the roots moist.

During the hot summer the cloches (row covers) are used at the end of the day to limit light to 12 hours. Starting at about 6pm workers pull the black plastic over the bent rebar. It takes two people between 10 and 20 minutes to cover 5 acres of raised beds. In the morning between 6 and 7am, before the day heats up, the covers are removed. With only 12 hours of light the plants are forced to flower early in the season when they are still small.

Buds are hung to dry for 10 days in a curing barn.(image right: The outside of the fenced field was planted with marijuana so that would-be thieves could pick some pot without entering the fields. There were many mature buds but few takers.)

When I was there in September the black cloches were no longer being used because of the short daylength; less than 13 hours near the beginning of autumn. However, the beds were covered with clear plastic toward the end of each day to conserve heat and protect from inclement weather. This was necessary because of cool temperatures and weather which alternated between overcast, drizzle and light rain. Light levels were falling precipitously as the sun sank lower on the horizon each day.

This was the last harvest of the year. Some of the fields had been planted three times. The first plants were placed outdoors in early March and harvested in early May. The next crop was harvested in mid July, and the final group while I was there in late September. Other fields and greenhouses were started later and yielded only one or two harvests.Buds are hung to dry for 10 days in a curing barn.

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