Growing The Best Pot Can Be Tricky

Aug 5, 2014

Legal marijuana...figuring out how to maximize yields on this new commodity will be tricky and not every licensed farmer will survive the competition and the tight margins. Correspondent Anna King on a statewide road trip to meet some of these growers. She explains that to understand who’s going to succeed, it helps to visit a more traditional farm first.

I’m at a potato farm north of Pasco.

Around 20 percent of the United States' potatoes come from the Columbia Basin.
Credit Anna King / Northwest News Network

Latina women work with kerchiefs tied over their noses. They sort through a river of Ranger-Russets spuds as they whiz by on a rolling belt. This time of year farmers dig even through the night.

Rob Davis: “You can win big, you can loose big.”

That’s Rob Davis. He farms about 7,000 acres of potatoes over a 40-mile swath of Washington. French fry potatoes are one of the world’s most competitive, time sensitive and demanding crops.

Rob Davis: “You’ll put more hours and more time and you’ll lose more sleep over a crop of potatoes than most other crops. But at the end of the year when it all turns out, there is no bigger reward than to know that you came out and planted one of the most difficult crops that there is to plant. You got it, you did it and you succeeded at it.”

About 20 percent of the United State’s potatoes come from right here in the Columbia Basin. Davis wears a lot of hats to make sure his French fry crop makes money.

Rob Davis: “You’ve got to be biologist, a chemist, a soil scientist, an accountant, an attorney, a mechanic, an electrician, a human resources manager … you have to have all of that.”

Cents on each pound of potatoes make the difference on skippin’ to the bank, or going bust. Still, potato growers have had thousands of years and the best science to perfect their craft. Davis says any new farmer will be on steep learning curve and it could take years to hit the sweet-spot on yields.

Rob Davis: “The very first time you’re not gonna to know all the secrets. You’re going to figure it out over time.”

It’s not just experience though. He gets a lot of help -- in terms of research, marketing -- and politics.
There’s the: Washington Potato Commission, the Washington Potato And Onion Association, Washington State University, the U.S. Potato Board, the National Potato Council and researchers from the state, region and federal government. It’s almost like an army marching relentlessly, all for the betterment of American potatoes. But for the marijuana industry there are no support troops -- at least yet.

Susy Wilson: “I hope someday anybody that wants to grow this plant can grow it in their backyard like a tomato, that’s really my goal.”

Growing marijuana outside is a tricky venture, as farmer Susy Wilson can attest to.
Credit Anna King / Northwest News Network

Take Susy Wilson’s farm near Dallesport in the Columbia Gorge. Her pot crew and support includes low-paid family and friends. She shows me a few waist-high pot plants in her fenced off compound. They look a bit sad today.  

Susy Wilson: “Well, one of my partners’ girlfriend overwatered stuff the other day and I’m a little concerned about some of them. But I think we’ll be OK, we’ve got the heat coming.”

Wilson’s now installed large chalkboards in her building to record watering, light cycles and temperatures. She and other pot farmers have been sharing their mistakes and successes with each other.

Susy Wilson: “I don’t know what’s going to do well outdoors. I don’t know. So it’s sort of trial and error. My youngest daughter and I did all this irrigation one afternoon. I didn’t think that we’d be able to do it, but we did, and we’re so proud of it.”

Some pot industry groups have started up around the state. There’s even a huge industry conference in Tacoma coming up this month. But marijuana’s status as an illegal drug under federal law means any traditional sorts of research support is a long way off at best. And that lack of federal recognition affects tangible things. Things like pesticide approval.

Erik Johansen: “There are a lot of growers that have questions on what they should and shouldn’t be using.”

That’s Erik Johansen with the state’s agriculture department. He’s where the buck stops for the state’s approved pesticide list for pot. Johansen says those pesticides have to comply with not only state, but also federal labeling requirements. That means Johansen must look for loopholes or pesticides with broad labeling applications. He’s cleared about two hundred and sixty so far. That might sound like a lot. But for your average crop, like potatoes, that’s a drop in the approved chemical bucket.

A look inside Alan Schreiber's farm north of Pasco, Washington. Pesticides have to comply with not only state but federal labeling requirements.
Credit Anna King / Northwest News Network

Erik Johansen: “They are not going to meet every potential need. And if there is some pest or disease scenario that gets out of hand it’s probably going to be tough for them to, to catch up.”

Potato farmer Rob Davis says even with the best pesticides and all the best farm practices -- Mother Nature is a beast and stuff happens.

Rob Davis: “The only real way to perfect it is through time and conversations among themselves. Even one particular grower, no matter what the crop is, you’ve figured out what not to do. None of us really know exactly how to do it. But we know what not to do.”

Davis says overtime, it’s actually, “the what not to do,” that educates growers. That’s ultimately what affects pocketbooks and survival. Farming, he says, isn’t for the faint of heart.

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