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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.

Odd Couple: Where Does A Straitlaced Farmer Get Pot Growing Expertise?

Joe Barrentine
The News Tribune

In Eastern Washington, a pair of very different guys teamed up to embark on an experiment to grow Washington’s latest agricultural crop -- legal marijuana. 

One of them, Alan Schreiber, 52, is a straitlaced farmer. The other, Tom Balotte, 25, is not a farmer. He's a video-gaming techie. He also doesn’t smoke weed.

But he does like to build things.

“I would tear [most of my toys] apart and then I’d lose the parts and never build them back up,” he recalled. “But as I got older I found more and more parts to put my toys back together.”

Balotte’s other love is gaming. You can tell by looking at his tattoos.

“This here is like the little sign of a video game, Oblivion, which is one of the Elder Scrolls games,” he said. “I’m a gamer.”

A gamer -- and a mechanic. Balotte has no traditional training but he’s a tinkerer and he’s good at it.

Schreiber noticed that straight away when he met Balotte about a year ago.

“He is very, very good at what he does,” Screiber said.

Schreiber gave Balotte a job as a mechanic on his farm just north of Pasco, Washington.

Schreiber said they just clicked.

“We do like new projects. We like trying new things and different things,” he said. “And he’d come up with an idea, and I’d come up with an idea on doing this.”

A Back-Of-A-Napkin Concept

Things really came together last winter, when they attended an agricultural conference in Portland. They were out for a few drinks after a long day of sessions when a light bulb went off.

Credit Joe Barrentine / The News Tribune
The News Tribune
Researcher Tom Balotte, of Ag Development Group in Eltopia, Washington, inspects chemistry for a project July 2, 2014.

They would team up and use Schreiber’s farming expertise and Balotte’s mechanical wizardry to dip into this new pot farming experiment.

They scratched a modified hydroponic-like plan on the back of a bar napkin. And the partnership was born.

They knew the state was limiting the amount of square footage for each grower. So why not hatch a contraption that would grow more marijuana per square foot?

And Balotte said it’s not just about pot.

“If you design and perfect a way to grow cannabis efficiently, than maybe you can move on to other things with the same system,” he noted.

The prototype is a weird-looking machine about the size of a vintage Cadillac. It looks a bit like a massive Peruvian pan flute lying on its side. PVC tubes are lined up with cutout holes facing up. Netted cups are placed in each of these openings on the top of the tubes.

“There would be one plant in each of these cups and there would be a nutrient bath that would come in and would go down over the roots,” Schreiber explained. “Eventually, the root ball would grow down to the bottom.”

The grow-system was completed in the spring.

Waiting For The State

Right now it’s gathering dust in a large greenhouse on the farm while the two collaborators wait for their pot-growing license from the state. There’s a bit of a queue. Nearly 2,500 applications are pending.

But Schreiber is hopeful.

“The state’s moving pretty slow on the applications, it’s probably going to take months,” he said. “And so, we’ve kind of hit the pause button.”

But they’re ready to hit play as soon as the state lets them. And they have even more paper-napkin plans for how to alter this machine and make it produce even more pot, but that’s, as Schreiber said, “Off the record, off the record, off the record!”

While Scheiber is waiting, he has plenty of other things to keep him occupied. The pot experiment appealed to him as he’s an agricultural researcher as much as he’s a farmer.

Credit Joe Barrentine / The News Tribune
The News Tribune
Alan Schreiber, takes a call from a farmer looking for help with a pest problem while inspecting an ongoing blueberry research project on his 105-acre farm in Eltopia, Washington.

On his farm outside of Eltopia, he’s growing over 300 types of crops from cherries, to white-fleshed watermelon, to purple-hued cauliflower.

Growing pot seems like a lot of hassle for someone that’s already trying to track all those crops plus the pests and pesticides that go with them. So why did he want to do it?

“If you want to know what Washington agriculture is going to be like in the next five to ten years from now, you can come to this farm and see it,” Schreiber said. “And cannabis is going to be another crop. And there is a tremendous need for research on, on cannabis.”

Schreiber said if his farm is approved to grow pot he and Balotte will start building their growing systems by the drove – and improving the design as they learn more. Until then, he’ll focus on this year’s summer harvest.

Meanwhile, his partner/mechanic Balotte, still has quite a few machines around the farm to fix.


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.