Pursuit of marijuana market creates odd couple

Alan Schreiber’s truck bounces along a rutted road past row upon row of crops.

Blueberries, asparagus, apples, cantaloupe, Brussels sprouts, Concord grapes, Merlot grapes, peaches, pears, cherries, onions, pumpkins, potatoes, tomatoes, sugar beets, alfalfa. More than 300 varieties of produce, much of it part of experiments on disease, pests and growing techniques.

“Every row here is something different,” the Franklin County farmer said. “There’s fava beans, Chinese cabbage, early green cabbage, green cabbage, red cabbage, savoy cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, kale, another kind of kale, bok choy, some Napa cabbage, peppers, melons, tomatoes, tomatillos, eggplant. It goes on and on and on.”

But the crop that Schreiber figures will be more lucrative than any of them was “completely unfamiliar” to him — a “foreign world.”

Until a grower came to him wanting to know how to control mites on marijuana plants; that’s when Schreiber realized he’d better learn about the cannabis plant.

He turned out to have a source of knowledge on his own staff.

The 52-year-old Schreiber met 25-year-old Tom Balotte about a year ago and hired him as a mechanic. Balotte had worked on a Virginia Tech research farm before moving with his girlfriend to Washington state.

He put his mechanical mind to work fixing and designing equipment, like a shield he built to expand the space that could be used for research by keeping pesticide being sprayed on some plants away from others.

The Romania-born, Texas-raised son of a botanist and a mechanical engineer, Balotte’s tattoos tell part of his story. The design on his arm relates to shooting airsoft guns, the one on his fist to a favorite metal band, and the ink on his back and his other arm to the worlds of video games “The Elder Scrolls” and “World of Warcraft.” A three-monitor display at home immerses him in his games.

Schreiber is a straitlaced Eastern Washington farmer. He grew up on a farm and earned doctoral degrees in entomology and pesticide toxicology, then worked for the Environmental Protection Agency and as a Washington State University professor before going into commercial research. He voted against Initiative 502 that legalized recreational marijuana.

If they’re something of an odd couple, it turned out they were well-suited for collaboration on the new project Schreiber had in mind.

“I’ve got the pest management experience,” Schreiber said, “and he’s got the kind of applied, real-world, make-things-grow skills.”

The full realization came months after Balotte was hired, during a conversation over beers at a 30th-floor Portland restaurant at the end of a long day at an agricultural conference. It turned out Balotte’s past tinkering included growing marijuana in a closet.

They started to realize Balotte’s experience could be a perfect match for Schreiber’s hopes of doing cutting-edge research and development on the plant and its pests.

“He was made for a project like this,” Schreiber said.

Balotte isn’t a pot smoker, although he travels in the right circles.

“I wish I could, but I was just too sensitive to it,” Balotte said. “My friends, it looks like they’re having the most fun in the world, and I’m sitting there with my beer in my hand, just sitting there with envy, because it looks awesome.”

Now Schreiber has applied for a license. His is one of more than 2,400 applications still waiting after the state Liquor Control Board has approved fewer than 140 growers.

Meantime, Balotte has designed a prototype of a hydroponic growing contraption.

“If you want to try some advanced growing techniques you have to involve some engineering, some design, and that’s really what I like,” Balotte said.

The prototype involves PVC tubes dotted with holes like giant flutes, each hole a spot for a plant to stick out of while its roots are bathed in nutrients. The thing is gathering dust in a greenhouse while they wait for a license.

If approved, they expect they can pioneer new ways of not only growing the plant, but keeping it from being destroyed by pests and contaminants.

Schreiber expects a huge demand for information among the licensed growers.

“The first time that somebody has $100,000 worth of this that they lose because they get an aphid infestation, a mite infestation, powder mildew or Botrytis (a fungus),” he said, “... people will want to know how to control these pests.”

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