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State-licensed growers in Washington have already grown vast amounts of marijuana under blinding lights in non-descript warehouses and on fenced-off fields in Eastern Washington. But how those plants are cared for, who these growers are and how this industry shakes out is all in question.Our multi-media series entitled “First Cut: Washington’s Freshest Crop, and the Wild-[North]West Farmers Giving It A Grow” is a collaborative effort between the Northwest News Network's Anna King and The News Tribune’s Jordan Schrader. The series will examine Washington state’s newest high-value crop and the wild-west personalities it attracts."First Cut" is a reference to the hay industry. "First cutting" means the first crop of hay of the year. It's often a very quality product that is sold for the highest prices of the entire season. Later hay goes for a lesser price. Haying, like pot grows, is a risky business. One rain, or the wrong bugs can wipe out a farmer for the season.From the Yakima Valley to the Columbia River to the Cascade Foothills, we will look at profit margins, security issues and some interesting collaborations. We will look at the pros and cons of growing outdoors versus indoors, pesticides versus organics and why not everyone growing this newly legal crop is going to be a winner.First Cut will also feature companion stories in The News Tribune, based in Tacoma, Washington.

Dark 'n' Light: Is It Better To Grow Marijuana Indoors Or Out?

Joe Barrentine
The News Tribune

As legal pot growing operations spring to life from urban King County to remote corners of Washington state, an ongoing debate has developed within this new farming community.

Should marijuana be grown indoors or out?

'As Nature Intended'

For Toni Reita there is no debate. The diminutive woman with flowing white hair has been a naturalist, an herbalist, a log home builder and now a full-on pot farmer.

"It’s all going to happen as nature intended,” Reita said. “Those warehouses are beautiful, and those state of the art buildings and all the light spectrum … but it doesn’t matter what you pay for it, you’re not going to beat this.”

"This" being the natural sunlight, wind and organic mulch.

Reita said growing pot outdoors makes economic sense too.

“Under ideal circumstances, one crop annually will outperform four crops indoors.”

Reita’s fenced in pot grow, Black Dog Acres, is in a remote spot, past Goldendale, where narrow roads narrow even further before turning to gravel.

'A Win, Win Situation For Us'

About 40 miles away in the Columbia Gorge, Susy Wilson is also planning to produce a significant chunk of her pot outdoors.

Credit Joe Barrentine / The News Tribune
The News Tribune
Susy Wilson, of WOW Weed in Dallesport, Wash., says she plans to grow pot indoors and out.

Wilson has a warm, mother earth vibe with her tie-dye shirt and white, wispy mohawk. She said she passes the long work hours by talking to her pot plants, aka her “ladies.”

Most of her plants so far are indoors, but she has big plans for her garden plot out back, and she has nestled tiny plants there in mulch and sand.

Wilson said Dallesport, right off the Columbia River, is a microclimate -- the “Mediterranean of the Gorge.” It’s sunny, warm and windy here -- and she said that’s a good thing.

“The wind stops bugs,” Wilson explained. “Bugs can’t hang on very well in this kind of wind, so that’s kind of a win, win situation for us.” ?

She added that outdoor plants are just healthier and require fewer chemicals for pests or molds.

Consistent And Controlled

Still, the majority of the 120 licensed marijuana grows in the state are opting for all-indoor grows. Eric Cooper owns one of them, a warehouse operation called Monkey Grass just outside of Wenatchee.

Credit Anna King / Northwest News Network
Northwest News Network
Mikel King, 21, of Wenatchee, carefully snips the lower branches of a pot plant so that it will be more fruitful as it grows larger at Monkey Grass Farms.

Cooper believes a controlled environment is crucial for his business to make money. For example with an indoor grow, he said there’s never any down time -- like winter.

“We will crop approximately 150 to 200 plants every seven days,” Cooper said. “So that’s 52 crops a year.”

He said in a warehouse he can control the dark and light the plants get so they mature the buds properly. But keeping these lights cycling is expensive. That’s even with Eastern Washington’s cheaper hydroelectric energy.

Sunlight, of course, is free. Cooper is hoping that at some point soon the state will give out more licenses and he’ll be able operate an outdoor grow too.

“When we go outdoor, our crop size is going to increase dramatically,” he said.

If nature cooperates, outdoor grows can yield more pot -- but will customers like it as much?

Tim Thompson, one of the owners of the Altitude pot store in Prosser, Washington, said their customers haven’t had access to outdoor weed yet. But in terms of which they will prefer between outdoor or indoor, he said, “I really don’t think there’s going to be a difference.”

Thompson said he thinks it will come down to price. That theory will be tested in just a few weeks when farmers like Wilson and Reita bring their outdoor pot to market.


This project is a collaboration with Jordan Schrader of The News Tribune in Tacoma. Read his companion piece to this story. For more photos see our slideshow on Flickr.

Anna King calls Richland, Washington home and loves unearthing great stories about people in the Northwest. She reports for the Northwest News Network from a studio at Washington State University, Tri-Cities. She covers the Mid-Columbia region, from nuclear reactors to Mexican rodeos.