Cannabis farm is out in the open

By Allison Arthur of the Leader
Posted 4/12/16

Horticulturist Kyle Craig thinks marijuana belongs out in the open, growing naturally under the sun.

And he thinks it's time to treat cannabis like any other plant, which is to say, do research on …

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Cannabis farm is out in the open

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Horticulturist Kyle Craig thinks marijuana belongs out in the open, growing naturally under the sun.

And he thinks it's time to treat cannabis like any other plant, which is to say, do research on it and experiment to see which varieties grow well, where, and in what soil conditions.

If all goes as Craig plans, by the first week of May, Jefferson County should see its first legal outdoor marijuana operation – clearly visible behind an 8-foot-tall chain-link fence in the middle of a field where Roger Short's cows have been grazing for decades.

Craig is using 2.5 acres of the 5 acres he's leasing from Short, located off State Route 19 (Beaver Valley Road) about 2 miles south of the Chimacum crossroads. The soil is rich with what is called San Juan gravely loam. Short jokingly said if he had 100 acres of the particular soil that Craig is using, “We could all go to Mexico for a few months.”

The soil is that deliciously rich, they say.

WHY BEAVER VALLEY?

Good soil isn't the only reason Craig picked Short's land.

Craig had initially sought to lease property off Larson Lake Road, after he filed for a permit from the state Liquor and Cannabis Board (LCB) in December 2013 to be a Tier 3 producer and processor.

But the neighbors objected – strongly. Responding to concerns, Jefferson County government slapped a moratorium on marijuana permits until it could draft its own local rules. Craig participated in the hearings that led to the county's current regulations on marijuana, which allows growing the herb – aka weed – on agricultural lands.

“People kept saying over and over, 'I don't want a warehouse in my backyard.' And I don't either. I don't want to build a warehouse and work in that,” said the 38-year-old Louisiana transplant, who has a master's degree in plant environment and soil science from Louisiana State University. “I got involved in horticulture so I could work outside with plants.

“And I didn't want to start out with a relationship of antagonism with my neighbors," said Craig, who moved here three years ago.

Finding the right property wasn't easy. It had to have a water right. It had to be zoned for agriculture. It had to be surrounded by other agricultural property. And it had to have good soil.

Craig owns Rhizosphere Consulting, and many of his clients are in the blooming marijuana industry. One of his clients is Marty Gay, owner of Jefferson County Cannabis. It was Gay, Craig recalled, who first introduced him to Roger Short.

Short, who has been farming in the Chimacum Valley since 1970, has both a beef cattle operation as well as a business called Magical Soil.

“I said, 'Well, shoot, this is in the middle of nowhere, and you won't be having this NIMBY thing. It's away from kids. It's totally out in the open,’” Short said.

“It's going to happen in the county. I look at it as, I'm taking it and putting it out in the open field, as opposed to it being closer to people,” said Short, who plans to hay the rest of the 5 acres, around the marijuana grow, as he has for years.

“After my experience with the first piece of property, I didn't want to have an antagonistic relationship with anybody,” Craig said of how the two proceeded with plans.

Short and Craig said they visited with neighbors abutting the property, and no one had a problem.

“Most of the neighbors thought it was pretty cool,” Craig said.

Craig noted that checking in with neighbors was not a requirement of either the state LCB, which regulates the marijuana industry, or of Jefferson County's Department of Community Development (DCD), which oversees land use.

Craig said he's in the process of obtaining permission from the LCB, and has checked in with the county on fencing requirements and a wetland delineation report.

It wasn't just that Short said OK, the neighbors were good with it, the soil was good and water was available that led Craig to the Beaver Valley land.

“I'm not growing marijuana because it's an optimal place to grow here, I'm growing it here because it's an optimal place to raise my family,” said Craig, father of a 2-year-old daughter.

SUSTAINABILITY

If anything, Craig said, the moratorium and community discussion on marijuana confirmed how he felt about growing not just marijuana, but anything, and he thinks his ideas about sustainability match the community's values.

“The moratorium helped me understand what I needed to do, and it confirmed that what I wanted to do was in line with the values of the community: the idea of not growing in a warehouse, the idea of not having a lot of runoff.

“For me, if I'm going to do this, I'm going to do it the way I would any other crop, the way I can feel good about it that doesn't generate a ton of CO2. I have to be true to my values. Sustainability is a lot more important to me,” he said.

“If I grow 1,000 pounds of marijuana out in that field, I'll generate the same amount of CO2 that 1 pound of indoor marijuana will produce,” he said, citing research published bEnergy Policy, a peer-reviewed scientific journal. “And that's assuming I burn 100 gallons of diesel,” he added.

Craig can wax on about sustainability and the difference between warehouse-grown marijuana and outdoor-grown marijuana, as well as the history of what he calls the “black and gray” markets of cannabis crops: Black as in illegal, gray as in legal medical marijuana.

“The warehouse plant factory systems favored by the black and medical markets in Western Washington is neither environmentally or economically sustainable in the long term,” Craig initially wrote in an email to the Leader about his project. “On average, a pound of marijuana produced in a plant factory generates 2.5 tons of carbon dioxide. Marijuana crops grown this way consume an estimated 1 percent of all U.S. electricity. That's unacceptable.”

And ultimately, Craig said, as the wholesale price of marijuana continues to fall and the supply increases, there will be more pressure on growers to grow the herb more cheaply.

“Once the price goes below a certain threshold and plant factories are no longer tenable, I think marijuana licenses will become like [commercial] fishing licenses,” he said of the future he sees for marijuana.

“Remember that marijuana is only expensive because it was illegal for nearly a century. The only other legal crop with a comparable value is saffron, which takes a football field of flowers and a whole lot of labor to produce just 1 pound.”

MONEY, FRUIT, RESEARCH

Craig is plowing much of the money he earns as a horticultural consultant for those indoor marijuana-grow operations back into his outdoor operation.

In an ideal world, Craig would like to invest in an orchard.

“Personally, I'm interested in fruit crops,” he said.

“But the way agriculture is now, you have to have money. [Growing marijuana] is a pathway for me. If it works, it works, if it doesn't, it doesn't.

“My budget is $20,000 and that's not much different if I were putting in an orchard, but an orchard takes five years” to see any revenue. Not so with the marijuana operation.

“Because of my background in small farming, I understand how to do things cheaply,” he said.

Although he doesn't have a tractor, he plans to rent one, and he's investing in a tool that will allow him to shape the beds, plow the field, lay drip tapes and “be ready to grow in a day.” Almost everything else, including the box containers in which he will dry and store the marijuana, is to be rented.

In six months, he expects to harvest the crop he plans to plant in May. He also expects that crop to be sold before he harvests it, sometime in the early fall.

In the meantime, it's research into what plants grow outside that is of interest to him.

He's planning to grow 50 different varieties of cannabis. He produced a plot plan that shows a “randomized complete block design to evaluate disease tolerance, resistance, flowering response to natural photoperiod, yield, phenotypic traits, potency and organoleptic attributes.”

It's basically a map to the plots.

“Marijuana as a crop has missed half a century of research. It's been underground. If you do a scholarly search or literature review for all the things we take for granted with crops in terms of fertilization rates, harvest, predictions on yield on different varieties, none of that is there from a research perspective,” he said.

Craig thinks the prospect of testing varieties is exciting and something few are currently doing.

With any other new crop, Washington State University's extension office might be able to offer assistance, suggesting varieties and growing tips. Because cannabis is not recognized by the federal government as legal, few have ventured into the research arena, he said.

“Most universities aren't willing to potentially jeopardize their receipt of federal funds by doing this,” Craig said.

For now, he said, “Everyone is making this up as they go. There is no playbook. And everything is going to change. What the industry looks like now is a continuation of what the black market and gray market were, and for the future, it's not going to look like that.”

IN THE MINORITY

While Craig is set to have the first fully outdoor marijuana operation in Jefferson County, his won't be the first in the state.

Unlike Colorado, which does not allow for outdoor grow operations, Washington does.

David Brown, executive director of the Washington Sungrowers Industry Association, which represents cannabis growers, said that foresight bodes well for the industry.

“I believe these indoor grows are a relic of when you had to grow indoors because of concealment,” Brown said.

By growing cannabis outside and not relying on expensive electricity and pesticides, Brown said, the growers represented by his group believe that they can be more sustainable – both environmentally and economically.

“This market can self-regulate and can take it outside into the sunshine.”

James MacRae of Straight Line Analytics, who has looked at permits issued by the state, estimates that of 645 marijuana producers in Washington, more than half are using lights – and electricity. Roughly 19.4 percent – roughly 125 growers, and soon to include Craig – are relying on the sun alone, MacRae estimated.

MARIJUANA, LIKE CIDER

Craig and his wife, Carla, have lived in various countries around the world. They lived in Taiwan, and he worked as a travel writer for a time. He has also lived in New Zealand.

The two moved to Jefferson County, in part, because of the up-and-coming cider industry. He worked as a research associate in Mount Vernon, designing experiments on vegetable crops. He also managed cider crops. And his wife is involved in promoting the cider industry and helped establish the Summer Cider Day event.

Craig sees parallels between the marijuana and cider industries, and even the wine industry.

It's not just that cider and wine were once made secretly in bathtubs, like gin was during Prohibition; it's that now that alcohol is legal, there's an art to making it. A new emphasis is on taste. It's called terroir, which is a French term for the “unique flavor and aroma of a wine that is attributed to a specific growing environment of the grapes.”

So is there a “terroir” for marijuana growing outdoors, in that rich soil?

Craig is anxious to find out.

“As time goes on, I think most discerning cannabis consumers will come to view plant factories in the same way that blood diamonds, sweatshops and GMOs are perceived – not something they want to support,” he said. “Our community has such strong feelings about the importance of sustainability, I am confident that sustainably grown marijuana crops will be celebrated and expected here. In terms of reducing your carbon footprint, there are few examples of lower-hanging fruit.”

THE RULES OF FARMING

In the meantime, what he is mindful of are the rules of growing marijuana.

“So much of the Liquor and Cannabis Board's rules are to ensure that the people growing marijuana aren't taking it off site to sell it on the black market,” he said.

So surrounding the plot of cannabis he hopes to grow in that freshly plowed field, Craig said there would be 36 cameras poised inside the plot and on its perimeter. Only employees and guests who sign in are allowed to be in the confines of the growing area.

And yes, that means if one of the radio-controlled model airplanes from the nearby Tri-Area RC Flyers happens to accidentally land inside the fence, they'll have to wait to recover their plane until he can arrive and escort them inside.

“My canopy is 30,000 square feet, but in accordance with organic growing practices and sustainability, I don't want to cram everything into this tiny place that promotes disease. The more light penetration and air flow I can get between my plants, the better defense I have against pests and diseases from the outset,” he said.

Cannabis, he said, is susceptible to powdery mildew and botrytis, a fungus.

And while he can't go to WSU for advice, Craig has set up an office for his consultant business at the Farmhouse CoLab, housed in the historic Brown Dairy farmhouse in the heart of Chimacum. He rubs shoulders with other young farmers intent on reinventing Jefferson County's agriculture.

So will people be able to smell the sweet essence of cannabis as they drive to and from Jefferson County some day soon?

“No,” said Craig. “Any odor from the ripening flowers is not able to travel far enough to reach surrounding properties.”

And even if there was a slight essence of fresh marijuana, Craig said, “those concerned can rest assured that the smell of manure will still be the dominant olfactory experience."

In the city, air filtration systems are put in place to conceal the operation from neighbors who might be feet from an exhaust vent – not thousands of feet away from a field of flowers.

“I'm trying to do the opposite of what other people have done, because within the legal marijuana work, there's a lot of people who have invested huge amounts of money in plant factories. They are under huge pressure to recoup their costs. They have maybe $50,000 a month in electricity bills.

“For me, I'm more interested in working in concert with nature than trying to over come it.”

In other words – outside, in the open.

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