An autumn chill settled over the marijuana farm near Spangle jointly owned by Spokane City Councilwoman Karen Stratton and her husband, Chris Wright.
The outdoor thermometer read 42 degrees. Four 20-somethings the family hired to trim the plants shuffled through a key-activated gate while captured on security cameras wiping sleep from their eyes on Tuesday’s sunless October morning.
“This is the busiest time of year,” said Wright, an attorney and president of the Spokane Park Board.
The 500 or so plants the couple planted early in June now nearly puncture plastic-covered hoop houses, and the threat of a crop-damaging frost gives this harvest a sense of urgency.
Roughly three to four dozen active marijuana farms in Spokane County are going through the same activity, including neighboring producers in the “grow park” Stratton and Wright share with other tenants.
“The one thing about weed – it’s remarkably fussy,” Wright said. “I don’t have this much trouble growing dandelions in my yard.”
The novice weed growers are hoping to build on a short season two years ago with new knowledge and equipment to turn a profit in their third year, a struggle that is as much about navigating state regulations and requirements as it is battling inexperience in this once-illegal industry.
Stratton and Wright, along with Stratton’s sister and her husband, were enticed to enter the recreational marijuana market by one of Wright’s legal clients. The first-time weed growers didn’t plant until August 2014 because of the need for state-level inspections and the installation of legally required security fencing and cameras, truncating their first growing season.
The family harvested the crop themselves a couple of months later and had to share an automated trimmer from their neighbors to prep the flowers for drying.
“We borrowed the trimmer, but we couldn’t borrow it until they were done for the day,” Stratton said. “We wouldn’t get it until 9 o’clock at night, and we’d trim until 1 in the morning.”
Lessons big and little piled up during the first growing season, Wright and Stratton said. The family received help from surrounding growers, who also provided the seeds for the four marijuana varieties they planted this year.
“That first year, we were going from project to project,” Wright said.
Most of the issues were weather-related. Frigid fall nights in the drying shed convinced the family they needed to insulate the walls. A sheet of ice formed on top of the plastic covering the hoop houses and wouldn’t melt, complicating the process of tearing down after the harvest.
Even packaging the bud for wholesale was a trial and error process, Wright said. The family settled on 10-gallon Ziploc bags, which hold about 5 pounds of flower without fail. But when they went to buy more at the store, they discovered other growers seemingly had the same idea.
“The shelves were empty,” Wright said. “We had to order from Amazon.”
All the proceeds from the first harvest have gone into prepping for this year, including spending several thousand dollars to buy their own automatic trimmer. Wright said the farm hasn’t turned a profit yet, but they’re hoping to finish in the black after sitting out a year to regroup.
Even their trimmers, who assist at other farms renting space in the 11-acre plot where Stratton and Wright farm, say much of what they learned came through word-of-mouth and other unofficial sources because of the continued stigma attached to marijuana, a drug still outlawed under federal law.
“It’s a lot of internet research,” said 22-year-old Adrian Barajas, pausing from snipping stalks with a pair of handheld shears.
The knowledge base in Washington is getting larger, judging by the amount of marijuana that’s being produced. October and November were the big months for marijuana production in 2015, said Brian Smith, a spokesman for the Washington Liquor and Cannabis Board. In those two months, more than 38 tons of marijuana was harvested. Through just the first two weeks of October this year, state farmers have already reaped 16 tons of product.
“Harvest levels are already, at midmonth, equal to what they were for the whole month last year,” Smith said.
Kevin Oliver, who runs a farm north of Spokane in addition to lobbying at the local, state and federal levels for the reform of marijuana laws, said he expected an even more robust crop than last year, when he and his wife predicted potentially the world’s largest harvest of marijuana.
“The rains we just got last week, and the threat of some severe windstorms, had us thinking we should probably harvest last week,” Oliver said.
Rain is a bigger problem for the plant during the warmer months, when humidity leads to the appearance of molds and what’s known as “bud rot,” damaging the quality of the product, Oliver said. It’s unclear what, if any, effect this year’s milder temperatures and increased rainfall will have on the potency of the product compared to last year, which was defined by extreme heat and historically arid conditions.
“Sometimes they look really good, and they don’t test worth a damn,” said Steve Kuhlman, Stratton’s brother-in-law and partner in the Spangle farm, as he fed freshly plucked nuggets of marijuana into the farm’s automated trimmer this week. After flowing through a cylinder surrounded by swirling blades, the marijuana pops out a chute and is ready to be dried before sale.
The marijuana grown in Spokane County will enter a recreational market that continues to expand, 27 months after the first legal sale in July 2014. Twenty-five retail stores are operational in the county. Last month, those shops sold $7.6 million worth of marijuana, $2.8 million of which returned to the state’s coffers as excise tax.
Stratton, who’s helping on the farm on weekends when she’s not needed at City Hall, said most of her constituents have responded with curiosity, rather than vitriol, to her involvement in the industry. She earned re-election in 2015 after first revealing her side business, which she said showed it wasn’t a big issue for voters.
“I have not had anybody to my face, or in writing, be negative about it,” Stratton said. “I’m sure people are. If I read some of the comments in the Spokesman, I’d probably see it.”
The councilwoman feels on firmer footing this harvest, despite her husband’s insistence that he’s an inept farmer.
“I kill everything,” Wright said, picking up dried buds and placing them in one of those 10-gallon Ziploc bags. “I kill houseplants. Karen’s the gardener in the family.”