The marijuana being sold legally at Washington’s new retail stores is the product of a loving but strict upbringing.
By and large, it comes from plants that sprouted, grew and flowered under bright lights in climate-controlled rooms, every aspect of their cultivation tightly managed.
Count Toni Reita out of all that.
Her grow light is the Eastern Washington sun. Her air conditioning is the breeze drifting in from the Columbia River Gorge a couple of dozen miles south. She’s an Earth mother raising flower children.
“I’m a bit of a risk taker, so I’m going to take my chances with nature,” said Reita, a white-haired herbalist and naturopath who has built homes, imported cars and rescued dogs.
Twenty-three Rottweilers and one female pit bull share her property and, when ailing, her personal stash of medical marijuana. The ones that can benefit take a tincture of the drug on a dog biscuit.
The pooches are the namesake of Black Dog Acres, Reita and her partners’ 1-acre recreational marijuana farm a stone’s throw from her log home.
Reita is one of a group of growers gearing up for the first harvest of licensed sun-grown weed in Washington, the only state that has both legalized marijuana and authorized growing it outside.
When their crop is dumped on the market this fall, the state Liquor Control Board predicts, it should temporarily lower prices that have so far been sky-high.
Prices matter because they will help decide whether pot shops will displace drug dealers. And where prices end up in the long run could depend partly on whether outdoor growing takes root in Washington.
In deciding to go natural, Reita is thinking about something much simpler. The way she sees it, the weed she is growing on her organic farm will be as different from what’s being harvested now as home-grown tomatoes are from store-bought.
“One tastes like a tomato,” Reita said. “It drools down your chin like a tomato. It’s as red as a tomato. And the one that you buy in the store: it’s synthetic. So I am not saying or implying that the warehouses will produce an inferior product; they won’t. It’s a controlled product.”
Control, other growers say, is essential.
“Why would you risk a hail storm, a windstorm, pounding rain on the West Side, when you can grow four times as much indoors as outdoors with less risk?” Alan Schreiber said as rain drops pelted his farm in Eltopia near the Tri-Cities.
Schreiber, who has applied for a license to grow marijuana indoors for research and sale, uses his calculator to explain.
“If someone walks you through the economics of this crop,” Schreiber said, “you will see you would never trust this to be outside.”
He figures an acre of pot could yield a $7.4 million harvest — a whopping 435 times as much as blueberries, the next most valuable Washington crop.That’s a subject Schreiber knows as the executive director of the Washington Blueberry Commission.
A crop failure, then, would be catastrophic.
Not that growing indoors is foolproof.
Schreiber walks through a greenhouse that keeps the elements away from his organic eggplant. A close look reveals brown spots: aphids.
“While it’s ideal for plants, it’s also ideal for insects, too,” Schreiber said. “So this is a real challenge.”
Still, Schreiber predicts marijuana will largely be grown indoors within a year or two.
HARVESTS ALL YEAR LONG
For now, indoor growing is dominant but not overwhelmingly so.
It’s the most common technique reported among the 120 growers licensed as of July 21. And it’s what a large majority of growers are doing in wet Western Washington.
But on the dry side of the Cascade Mountains, it’s more split — with some staying indoors, some going out into the elements, and some mixing and matching.
Eastern Washington is set up well for both philosophies of growing, with sunny skies for outdoor growers and cheap power for indoor growers.
And sure enough, a majority of growers the state has approved so far are in Eastern Washington.
But the pot smokers are in Western Washington, because that’s where the people are — more than three-quarters of the state’s population.
If warehouses and sheds become the rule, and gray skies and cold weather aren’t a factor, will the supply gravitate to the demand? If so, the outdoor vs. indoor debate could help decide which side of the state gets the economic benefits of the new crop.
In essence, the case for indoor growing boils down to this: year-round weed.
In the artificial indoor environment, farmers aren’t limited to a single harvest. Indoor growers used to be able to produce three crops a year, but now they can churn out four or even more, said Randy Simmons, who oversees regulation as deputy director of the liquor board.
On the other hand, a plant grown outdoors tends to produce more pot than one grown inside — so much so that Reita expects one of her outdoor crops will eventually outperform four inside. And Simmons said: “You get tree-sized plants outside.”
But one indoor grower, Eric Cooper, says he can do better than four crops. He aims to run a plant through its cycle in just nine weeks, harvesting it between five and six times every year.
At Cooper and his partners’ operation inside a nondescript warehouse in Wenatchee, nearly 300,000 watts are burning.
Once plants have grown large enough, they go into one of the rooms where lights stay on for 12 hours, then go off for another 12, simulating autumn and coaxing the plants into flowering.
As half the flowering plants are bathed in light, automatic timers plunge the other half into dark to avoid using so much power at once.
Cooper believes the sun does a better job than these lights. He had hoped to be using both methods. The partners applied for multiple licenses, one of them for an outdoor site on Monkey Grass Road in Omak.
The name survives; the company is Monkey Grass Farms. But the fenced-in site is on hold. The liquor board limited the initial round of permitting to one license per business, and a choice had to be made.
“For us it was just a no-brainer,” said Cooper, a former contractor. “We’ll go indoor because we can crop all year long.”
While indoor growers can work all year long, those on the outside needed to get started by early summer to be assured of a good harvest in the fall. That window is now likely closed.
One who did get a license in time, Jeremy Moberg, said the liquor board should have prioritized outdoor growers to ensure a significant 2014 outdoor crop.
But Simmons said playing favorites like that would have opened the board up to a lawsuit.
Simmons added that one of the agency’s goals was to bring as many people as possible from the illegal market into the new legal one. That meant licensing small growers who know how to grow in basements or sheds but not on large farm plots.
“If we would have promoted the outdoor grows, we would have had all these people who were doing the small little grows stay where they’re at,” Simmons said.
Moberg, a grower in rural Okanogan County, and a few fellow growers have formed the Washington Sungrowers Industry Association. They want to move the state away from the high-intensity lights and climate control that are staples of the illicit market and much of the burgeoning legal market.
It’s a massive drain on electricity, Moberg said.
“Everyone in Washington pays a marijuana tax every time they pay their power bill,” he said.
Power in Washington comes mainly from relatively green hydroelectricity. But in other places, growing weed leaves a giant carbon footprint. If that continues amid legalization, Moberg said, “We’re legitimizing a practice that really is unjustifiable.”
One middle option for growers is a greenhouse, which offers the free sunshine of an outdoor grow and much of the control of an indoor grow.
Just 15 licensed growers have incorporated greenhouses into their planning, but Simmons has a hunch that greenhouse growing will become a dominant technique as successful methods sort themselves out.
Growers are experimenting with other middle routes.
Take Susy Wilson, who doesn’t go in for the hermetic environment of some indoor growers.
Unlike in those, the air off the windy Gorge circulates freely through her building in Dallesport. It’s pushed around by standing, oscillating fans, and by a giant intake fan high above that’s ready to switch on if the grow lights that shine all night long drive the temperature above 68 degrees.
During warm summer months, Wilson even planned to leave plants in the sun for their vegetative stage in which they grow to full size, before bringing them inside to flower in the simulated autumn.
“You can operate your grow as a clean room with no outside influences,” Wilson said, “you know — hairnets, socks on your shoes. We just didn’t really feel that was feasible for us. We tried it for a little while.”
For one thing, Wilson said, there’s the dog. She’s invariably shadowed by long-haired German shepherd Zeus.
“And,” she said, “because we need to moderate our temperatures, it’s a lot easier to do that at night by having our bay door open or having a door open and bringing in more cold air. So I don’t think it’s optimal, and I know a lot of people would be aghast, say, ‘Oh my goodness,’ but it works. It works fine.”
Separately, Wilson has an outdoor garden, where plants are whipped and sandblasted by a fierce wind off the Gorge.
“We chose this particular spot because of our outdoor growing conditions,” Wilson said. “I really believe that this is the best spot in the whole state of Washington to grow marijuana outdoors. We have the longest growing season, the warmest summer, low humidity. We don’t have problems with powdery mildew or mold like is so common on the west side of the mountains.”
On the flip side, other growers are using indoor techniques outside.
“The biggest problem with growing outdoors in this part of the country is our season’s short,” Cooper said. “Because most of these will start growing into bud, let’s say the first of September. Well, you have 60 days for it to get through that maturing process. Well, come by the end of October we’ve usually had a freeze or two. Our sun is already in Palm Springs itself by that point.”
But he’s determined to grow outside, and he has a plan. Bend PVC pipe into a scaffolding over his plants. Cover this “hoop house” with thick, dark plastic 12 hours a day, to simulate autumn in the heat of the summer just as he does now in the Wenatchee warehouse to get plants to flower.
All that’s needed to keep plants cool under the tarp is a few fans, he said. Harvest in July or August, and you’ve got a bonanza of weed.
“When we go outdoor, our crop size is going to increase dramatically,” Cooper said, “where instead of getting 10 to 12 ounces a plant like we do indoor, we’ll be getting maybe a pound and a half per plant.”
Back in Klickitat County, at the end of her remote gravel road near Goldendale, Reita watched as a neighbor she hired with a small tractor used the machine to drill holes into the hard-packed volcanic soil, making room for compost and plants.
About 700 plants were about to start their journey toward harvest.
“I like being outdoors,” Reita said. “I don’t like being confined in an office. I like dealing with the elements of nature. Snow on me, rain on me, sun on me, but don’t put me in a building.”