How many farmers will switch from fruit to pot?

YAKIMA — Irrigation canals line the Yakima Valley east of the Cascade Range, transforming a desert landscape into one of the most productive agricultural regions in the world — including crops for some of America’s biggest vices.

Thousands of acres of wine grapes dot the landscape, contributing to Washington’s No. 2 rank for premium wine production behind California. Farmers grow more than two-thirds of U.S. hops for big beer companies and craft brewers alike, and a large tobacco field is flourishing on a valley Indian reservation.

Now that Washington voters have legalized marijuana, will a region long recognized as one of the country’s leading fruit bowls, best celebrated for Washington apples, become known as the vice belt? Not necessarily.

Too many unanswered questions remain about the new law, from how the state will regulate it to whether entrepreneurs or large corporations should lead the way. And the biggest question: the federal government’s role going forward.

Marijuana remains illegal under federal law. Many states have approved it for medical use, but only Washington and Colorado have legalized it for recreational use.

The Justice Department has not said whether it will try to block the two states from implementing their new laws, passed late last year. For that reason, key land-grant universities that typically aid the agriculture industry by researching such things as pest control and crop yields — but rely on federal funding to do so — are avoiding the marijuana industry altogether.

In addition, marijuana is a crop that can’t be insured, and federal drug law bars banks from knowingly serving the industry.

Any combination of those factors makes farmers leery of planting marijuana in the near term, said Bob Young, chief economist for the American Farm Bureau Federation.

“At this stage of the game, it poses tremendous problems for growers,” he said. “Quite frankly, I’d tell one of our members to approach this with great caution.”

Both states are in the process of developing rules for a legal marijuana industry. In Washington state, a Liquor Control Board that privatized liquor sales statewide last year on orders of a different voter-approved initiative now is tasked with developing rules governing pot cultivation, processing and sales.

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

How many farmers should be allowed to produce marijuana in order to meet demand, and how big should their crops be? Where should they get their seeds? Should a crop be grown indoors or in fields outside?

Dozens of marijuana experts, who have been growing plants for medical use or in secret for illegal use, are educating state officials about the potential for the crop. Probably 95 percent of those people choose to 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 harvest for an outdoor crop, and allow for easier security measures.

As Simmons put it, “Somebody out picking a handful of grapes isn’t going to get stoned. So if we go through this process and determine outdoor grows are OK, we have to determine security standards.”

Security is a concern for Gail Besemer, who grows flowers and vegetables near Deming, and has expressed interest in a producers’ license.

Besemer already has three hoop houses, which are essentially temporary greenhouses, but could see expanding her business slightly to grow marijuana for a local clientele in northwest Washington.

However, “I’m concerned about druggies invading my property — ne’er-do-wells invading my property to steal, to get free dope,” she said. “Security would be an issue.”

Besemer, who is in her 60s, said she has never grown marijuana or used it, but can see potential for the crop.

“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,” she said.

More in Local News

Within an hour, 2 planes crash-land at Paine Field

One simply landed hard and went off the end of a runway. Another crash involved unextended landing gear.

Mill Creek’s Donna Michelson ready to retire at year’s end

The city’s longest-serving council member says she has every intention of staying involved.

Leanne Smiciklas, the friendly lady who served customers of her husband’s Old School Barbeque from a schoolbus parked in front of the Reptile Zoo east of Monroe, has died at 64. (Dan Bates / Herald file)
Without her, beloved BBQ hotspot in Monroe can’t go on

Leanne Smiciklas, who ran the now-closed Old School BBQ along Highway 2 with her husband, died.

Foundation awards grants to Arlington schools

The Arlington Education Foundation on Nov. 13 presented a check to the… Continue reading

Snohomish County firefighters head to California for 18 days

They’re from Fire District 26 in Gold Bar, Getchell Fire and Fire District 7.

State commission reprimands Snohomish County judge for DUI

Judge Marybeth Dingledy had pleaded guilty and was sentenced to a day in jail.

Driver arrested after car strikes pedestrian in Everett

The pedestrian was crossing the road near 12th Street and Broadway. He was injured.

Active Casino Road volunteer honored for work

Molina Healthcare recently honored Jorge Galindo, from Everett, as one of its… Continue reading

Over $12K raised to InspireHER

InspireHER, a local organization that encourages female empowerment, raised over $12,000 at… Continue reading

Most Read