A Shelton- and Tacoma-based pot business is now growing marijuana for Willie’s Reserve, the brand launched by country music star and cannabis connoisseur Willie Nelson.
It’s another major twist in the South Sound company’s story, which was run out of one county only to be embraced by another.
Brothers Taylor and Garrett Balduff are the owners of the cannabis operation called Forbidden Farms. They grow their cannabis in Mason County, near Shelton, and process it on Tacoma’s Tideflats.
“To get an endorsement from an American icon is pretty awesome,” Taylor said.
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The brothers smoked some of their Maui Wowie strain with Nelson backstage July 23 at his Marymoor Park concert.
“He was a fan,” Taylor said. “He liked it most definitely.”
Nelson is selling his brand, to which the Balduff brothers are contributors, in various Washington pot shops. Forbidden Farms is one of three in Washington listed as growers for Willie’s Reserve.
To get Nelson’s approval, an inspection team visited the farm in early 2016.
“They were absolutely blown away with what we were doing,” Taylor said. The team was impressed with the natural light the brothers use to grow their cannabis while still maintaining top quality.
Taylor, 32, manages the processing operation. Garrett, 35, manages the farm. They employ 18 workers. Both brothers and employees switch between the two sites as needed.
“It’s the new American Dream,” Garrett said. “Working together, owning our own business. It’s a new industry, and we were able to get our foot in the door.”
The Balduffs grew up in Bonney Lake and Buckley. Taylor worked in property management while Garrett worked in home remodeling. Both dabbled with collective marijuana gardens before taking on cannabis full time.
It wasn’t easy getting off the ground.
Almost a year after Initiative 502 passed in November 2012, the brothers found a site in rural Lewis County. They sold personal assets and cashed out 401(k)s to start their business.
“We brought in the power line a quarter mile,” Garrett said. “We started building infrastructure.”
Then Lewis County weighed in. “We could have grown in Lewis County if we had written consent from the federal government,” Taylor said. “They … just told us to go away.”
Growing, selling and possessing marijuana remains illegal under federal law.
The brothers decided to walk away from the $50,000 they invested in the property and try again.
“That dramatically set us back on money we could have used to set this up,” Taylor said. “That made that first year extra hard.”
When they arrived in Mason County in 2014, they found a completely different atmosphere.
“We took (county officials) our plan, showed them what we wanted to do. They were very open to the idea,” Taylor said. “When I said ‘marijuana’ I didn’t feel like I was cussing.”
While Mason County welcomed them, they soon discovered their new neighbors weren’t as happy to see them when construction began in April 2014.
A flier was distributed in the rural neighborhood along Totten Inlet saying the farm would bring 24-hour floodlights, a prison-like atmosphere, toxic runoff, crime and other problems.
“It got everybody worked up,” Taylor said.
But the brothers kept their gate open and invited neighbors to visit. And they did.
“They may have not been tickled that we were here, but they realized that we were going to run a nice, clean operation,” Taylor said on a recent September morning at the farm. “It’s very similar to any other kind of farming.”
A few moments later, a neighbor drove out of her driveway and gave Taylor a friendly wave.
“They see Taylor and I out here every day trying to build this,” Garrett said.
The Liquor and Cannabis Board would not issue a license until the operation was fully built out. That came in August 2014.
“You’re buying all this equipment with just the hope that you’ll get a license, and if you don’t, well, that’s it,” Taylor said.
“There was a time when I only had a few dollars to my name and I wondered, ‘What the hell did I get myself into?’ ” Taylor recalled.
The brothers called in favors from friends to provide labor for the project. All in all, the facility represents a $1 million-plus investment, Taylor said.
That November they made their first sale.
Today, 40,000 square feet make up the fenced growing operation on the leased, 5-acre property. Marijuana plants cover 30,000 square feet.
In late September, the Balduffs were preparing for a harvest of their outdoor crop.
Inside their greenhouses, marijuana plants were at various stages of growth.
Cuttings from “mother” plants sat in water- and nutrient-filled trays. Garrett lifted a tray to reveal spidery roots below.
To get an endorsement from an American icon is pretty awesome.
Taylor Balduff, on working with Willie Nelson
As the plants grow, they’ll be planted in pots, then repotted to larger containers as they get bigger.
Like a teenager getting her driver’s license, each plant gets an ID when it comes of age.
Once the plants reach 8 inches tall or wide, they are given a bar code tag that will stay with them through harvesting.
“Tracking is pretty intense,” Garrett said.
On this particular day, 3,500 plants were registered in the farm’s system.
The plants fill five greenhouses. Little do they know they’re about to be tricked.
When the plants approach maturity, the brothers use a light deprivation system they designed to make the plants think fall is coming regardless of the time of year. That causes the plants to flower sooner.
At the touch of a button a black covering can be unfurled, sending the greenhouse into a partial eclipse.
Sometimes the opposite situation occurs and more light is needed. During the summer, artificial lights are seldom needed.
“Even on a cloudy day here in Washington we’re still getting awesome light,” Garrett said. “There’s no light out there that can duplicate what the sun can do.”
Cloudy days have one-quarter to one-third the light of a sunny day. But even on those days it is still a substantial head start over indoor operations that rely on artificial lighting.
The controlled atmosphere of the greenhouses contrasts with the brothers’ outside growing area.
“Out here, we’re at the mercy of nature,” Taylor said.
“We are susceptible to everything any other crop would be susceptible to,” Garrett said. “An early freeze would kill this whole field.”
Planted in May, the outdoor crop was ready for harvest in late September.
“This is the most exciting time for us,” Taylor said.
But the outside area’s days are numbered.
“I would love to go all greenhouse,” Taylor said. “It gets rid of some the variables and curve balls that make outdoor production rough.”
When they constructed the farm, they could afford to build only the five greenhouses.
There’s another reason why greenhouses are more popular: They produce a higher quality product, the brothers said.
To fertilize their plants, the brothers use Indoor Garden’s Blu Moon, a Tacoma-made product.
While no herbicides are needed, they do occasionally use two approved insecticides to control spider mites and hemp russet mites.
The mites cause abnormal leaf growth and browning.
“You can’t see them with a naked eye,” Taylor said.
What the Balduffs can see are any intrusions into their farm and employee theft.
Close to 50 cameras cover the property.
“Just about anywhere you are on the farm is covered by at least two cameras,” Taylor said. In addition, a science-fiction-like security system protects the property.
Forbidden Farms opened its 4,600-square-foot processing facility in mid-2015 near the Port of Tacoma. They use it to dry, process and package their crop.
The unmarked location is a former restaurant. Diner-style stools still line a counter. But instead of customers eating burgers, employees make joints and affix labels to containers.
Earlier this week, 600 marijuana plants were slowly drying in a two-story room at the facility.
The room looked like a meat locker. Instead of sides of beef, marijuana was hanging from metal racks.
Taylor grabbed a bud and bent its stem. It wasn’t ready. It snaps off when fully dry.
After the buds are removed from the plant, they are placed in a trimming machine with rotating discs that remove stems, leaves and other undesirable parts.
Each bud is individually inspected and weighed. The buds will be put in packaging weighing from 1 gram to the legal maximum of 1 ounce (28 grams).
It’s the new American Dream. Working together, owning our own business. It’s a new industry, and we were able to get our foot in the door.
Flower is still the mainstay of the business.
“Raw bud is still king for us,” Taylor said. “We sell more of that than anything.”
Some of Forbidden Farms’ cannabis will be made into joints or have its oils extracted.
On this day, most of Forbidden Farms’ employees were applying labels to small test tube-like containers that hold single joints. They will be heat sealed after the joint is inserted, per state law.
Meanwhile, floor manager Cole Bernhardt was in the middle of a white nightmare. He was poking through a pile of a finely ground White Nightmare marijuana strain.
“I’m looking for stems like this,” he said, holding up a tiny section. “It’ll poke the slightest hole in the side (of the paper) and make it not as easy to smoke the joint.”
Forbidden Farms also makes what it calls candy cones — joints infused with hash oil and rolled in kief or dried hash.
“It’s a joint with an extra punch,” Taylor said.
The company also makes oils and extracts.
The joints, as Bernhardt later demonstrated, are made en masse.
A manual device holds 120 joint papers that Bernhardt filled with the Blackberry Trainwreck strain.
After tamping down the marijuana, the joints are removed and their ends twisted.
“3,000 more times and we’re all done,” Bernhardt said.
The brothers grow close to 75 strains. They differ in THC levels and taste.
“Certain strains might have a fruity taste, others might have a more woodsy, piney taste,” Garrett said.
Forbidden Farms sells to 15 stores, including Green Collar Cannabis in Parkland and Dank’s Wonder Emporium in Olympia. Federal law does not allow their product to cross state lines, even to neighboring Oregon, where recreational marijuana is also legal.
Marijuana sales continue to climb each month in Washington.
In September, Forbidden Farms passed the $1 million mark in sales for 2016, according to 502data.com. September sales were $192,000, a nearly $100,000 monthly increase from the prior September.
But the brothers know that won’t last forever.
“At some point it’s got to level out,” Taylor said. “I don’t know how it can sustain this growth. There are just so many consumers in Washington.”
They are near the top in sales out of 900-plus growers/processors in the state.
Forbidden Farms’ ultimate goal: Break into the top 10.