YAKIMA – Irrigation canals line Washington’s 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, famed 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.
The Justice Department has not said whether it will try to block Washington and Colorado from implementing their new laws. 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.”
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, said Randy Simmons, project manager for the Liquor Control Board.
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.
Security is a concern for Gail Besemer, who grows flowers and vegetables near Deming, Wash., and has expressed interest in a producer’s license.
Besemer has three hoop houses, which are essentially temporary greenhouses, but could see expanding her business to grow marijuana for a local clientele.
However, “I’m concerned about … ne’er-do-wells invading my property to steal, to get free dope,” she said. “Security would be an issue.”
Besemer, who’s in her 60s, said she’s never grown or used marijuana 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.”