Possibilities of Pot Production

Rules will guide farmers' decisions on introducing crop

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State seeks balance in marijuana regulation

The Washington State Liquor Control Board will have a public forum on the implementation of Initiative 502, 6 to 10 p.m. Feb. 7 at Clark College.

Attendees can meet staff members involved with I-502 and get updated on the process. From 7:15 to 10 p.m., the public can offer comments for the board to consider as it develops rules.

The forum is one of six scheduled around the state through Feb. 21. For email updates on the board’s I-502 rulemaking process, register at http://liq.wa.gov.

photoFILE - In this April 7, 2009 file photo, hands cull red delicious apples during packing operations at Valicoff Fruit Company in Wapato, Wash. Now that Washington voters have legalized marijuana, will an area recognized as one of the most productive agricultural regions in the world, celebrated for Washington apples, hops and wine grapes, become known as the vice belt? Not necessarily. (AP Photo/Yakima Herald-Republic, Andy Sawyer, File)

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photoYakima Herald-Republic file photos Workers harvest apples Sept. 9 in Gleed. Now that Washington voters have legalized marijuana, will an area recognized as one of the most productive agricultural regions in the world, celebrated for Washington apples, hops and wine grapes, become known as the vice belt? Not necessarily.

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photoYakima Herald-Republic files The Rattlesnake Hills rise behind the family-owned Kiona Vineyards & Winery in Benton City. The Yakima Valley is recognized as one of the most productive agricultural regions in the world, one of the nation's fruit bowls. Wine grapes, hops and now tobacco flourish there. Now that Washington voters have legalized marijuana, will it become a vice belt? Farmers are waiting to see.

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YAKIMA — The Yakima Valley feeds some of America's biggest vices.

Thousands of acres of wine grapes dot the landscape. Farmers here grow more than two-thirds of U.S. hops, and tobacco flourishes on a valley Indian reservation.

Now that Washington voters have legalized marijuana, will a region long celebrated for apples become known as the vice belt? Not necessarily.

The federal Justice Department has not said whether it will try to block the law. For that reason, key land-grant universities that typically aid the agriculture industry by researching such things as pest control and crop yields -- with federal funding -- are avoiding the marijuana industry altogether.

In addition, pot crops can't be insured, and federal drug law bars banks from knowingly serving the industry.

"At this stage of the game, it poses tremendous problems for growers," said Bob Young, chief economist for the American Farm Bureau Federation. "Quite frankly, I'd tell one of our members to approach this with great caution."

Of the three licenses Washington's Liquor Control Board will design authorize -- grower, processor, seller -- the rules for producing marijuana raise the most complex issues, according to Randy Simmons, project manager for the board.

How many farmers should be allowed to grow marijuana to meet demand, and how much? Where should they get seeds? Should a crop be grown indoors or in fields?

Dozens of marijuana experts, who have been growing plants for medical use or in secret for illegal use, are educating state officials. Probably 95 percent of those people grow their plants indoors, despite higher costs, to control light and temperature, improve quality and increase yields, Simmons said.

Indoor crops generally allow for up to three harvests per season, compared to just one for an outdoor crop, and make security easier.

Security concerns Gail Besemer, who grows flowers and vegetables near Deming and has expressed interest in a producers' license. Besemer has three hoop houses, essentially temporary greenhouses, but could see expanding to grow marijuana for a local clientele.

However, "I'm concerned about druggies invading my property -- ne'er-do-wells invading my property to steal, to get free dope," she said.

Besemer, who is in her 60s, said she has never grown marijuana or used it. "My family is not particularly excited about me being interested in this. But if someone has an integrated farm, growing a number of different crops, I would think it would be a high-profit plant," she said. "Taxation and security might get in the way of profits, and it might end not being so profitable.

"I'll just have to wait and see about the regulations."

Simmons said he could envision an industry that allows for both boutique growers with higher quality marijuana and large outdoor growers to get a cheaper product on the market.

"You're always going to see people looking for specific strains and varieties," he said. "It's like drinking Budweiser or a microbrew."