Welcome to the future
On a former cattle ranch along the Rogue River, a massive commercial marijuana-growing operation may be a harbinger of things to come in the Rogue Valley.
Next to a working alfalfa field, 1,100 cannabis plants are flowering in rows extending hundreds of feet and representing more than a ton of dried flowers with a potential value of more than $2 million.
"This is the old agriculture transitioning into the new," says Brent Kenyon, who has been one of the leading voices of marijuana legalization in Oregon and is also a consultant for growers, including the owner of the Rogue River ranch.
Jackson County is a marijuana powerhouse in the state containing one-third of all large commercial outdoor marijuana operations in Oregon, according to statistics from the Oregon Liquor Control Commission. Half of all indoor and outdoor commercial gardens in the state are located in Jackson and Josephine counties.
The Oregon Liquor Control Commission has issued licenses this year to 258 indoor and outdoor grow sites in the state. Jackson and Josephine counties have 126 of these grow sites. Jackson County alone has 75 licensed grow sites, or 29 percent of the state total. There are 61 large outdoor grow sites, similar to the one along the Rogue River, in Jackson County. Statewide, there are 165 large outdoor grow sites.
This is the first year growers are licensed to grow recreational pot under new rules set by the Oregon Liquor Control Commission. If the federal government downgrades marijuana from a Schedule 1 drug (same category as heroin), that could open the doors for even bigger operations.
Kenyon and other growers see a future in which marijuana fields join pear orchards and vineyards as Rogue Valley agricultural mainstays that will help bring more tourism to the valley.
Jackson County's flourishing marijuana industry is apparent to even the casual observer. The county is now a patchwork of properties devoted to plants for medical marijuana dispensaries, personal consumption and commercial operations. And that doesn't include illegal grows.
More than 6,000 medical marijuana grow sites operate in Jackson County, according to the Oregon Health Authority.
OLCC routinely inspect the sites, checking canopy size with GPS meters to make sure they don't exceed the licensed limit — currently a canopy maximum size of 40,000 square feet, or about an acre (rows between plants aren't counted). Recreational growers are required to have video cameras, fencing and other security equipment, along with a seed-to-sale tracking system.
Kenyon, who has his own 340-plant operation in another part of Jackson County and is owner of The Wharf seafood restaurant in Medford, has been working on the OLCC rule-making committee, helping to create regulations that reflect the on-the-ground needs of growers. His marijuana consulting business is called Kenyon and Associates.
The farm along the Rogue River is owned by an unlikely pot grower, Dewey Wilson, chief executive officer of International Commodity Carriers Inc. of Medford.
"In fact, I was a parent who said, 'Don't smoke this crap,'" Wilson, 61, says. Legalization of marijuana was unimaginable to him 10 years ago. "I never thought this would happen," he says. "I've come full circle on the issue."
Wilson, who says both he and his son began smoking marijuana for medical reasons, jumped into growing on a massive scale as a business move. He's branded his farm Tomato Hill Co. (or THC, the active ingredient in marijuana) because he believes marijuana will one day become as readily available as tomatoes.
Now his son, Henry, helps run the growing operation along with a half-dozen farmworkers.
One of the main reasons he bought this farm is access to Rogue River water rights that go back to the 1800s, Wilson says. Each of his plants consumes about seven gallons of water every three days.
Over the growing season, Wilson has learned about soil, watering, fertilizing, and he sometimes finds himself staring into a microscope at a leaf covered with the tell-tale signs of mites that have plagued many marijuana growers in the valley.
Wilson has a shed devoted to computers and monitors that take charge of the video surveillance equipment. An old barn that once housed cows has been upgraded and will be used for tourism if the state decides to allow it.
The marijuana plants can't be seen from any roads, and farm vehicles and workers are constantly tending the plants, each of which is coded to track the strain, the yield and other information.
Because the marijuana has to be tested for pesticides and molds, Wilson is learning about organic bug killers and ways to grow the plants to prevent molds.
The science around marijuana is evolving. Kenyon has urged Wilson to grow shorter plants that have more air circulation and are less susceptible to mold. The shorter plants devote more energy to flowers and less to leaf mass.
Wilson spent $2.5 million buying the property last year and invested another $500,000 in equipment, including surveillance cameras, farm vehicles, water holding tanks, pumps and upgrading the barn. Wilson is more than happy to have the OLCC inspect his operation and make sure he conforms to all the regulations.
"At my age, we're doing this all legally," he says.
Rob Patridge, chairman of the OLCC, says it's difficult to say when supply might outpace demand for marijuana in Oregon.
According to Patridge, an estimated 520,000 people in Oregon use cannabis, so he says the market is more limited than for other products, though he says retail sales and commercial grow sites are still in their infancy.
"The average weekend user consumes about 2 ounces a year," he says.
Patridge says the OLCC could allow bigger grow sites in the future.
At the same time, illegal grow sites concern Patridge and law enforcement officials. Patridge says there are discussions about ways to deal with the many illegal operations in the state. Legal growers have expressed concern that the number of illegal grows could attract the attention of the federal government.
Patridge says he's seen some resistance from growers who have grown illegally for years who are suddenly confronted with regulations from the OLCC.
"If you've been a pirate for three decades, it's hard to come on board," he says.
Michael Monarch, owner of Green Valley Wellness, says he expects more people will receive licenses from the OLCC to grow marijuana over the next year.
"There's about another 600 (applications) in progress right now," he says. "It takes a long time to get it right, and it's complicated navigating through all the steps."
Monarch says he had hoped to set up his own 400- to 600-plant operation this year, but he's run into more complications than anticipated. As a result, he's growing 48 medical marijuana plants this season but hopes to grow on a bigger scale next year.
To grow a big operation, cannabis growers need to find the right property that has plenty of water rights, Monarch says.
Monarch says the rollout of regulations by the OLCC hasn't been smooth. He says one grower in the south valley was told to destroy his 600 immature plants in the spring before the OLCC had figured out how growing marijuana works.
"It was a big hit to them," he says, referring to the owners of the operation.
Many growers aren't aware of the potential pitfalls of growing cannabis legally, including higher overhead because of the rules as well as hefty taxes to the state and federal government, Monarch says. He says growers have to treat their operation like a business if they want to survive, particularly for a cash-based business.
"You have to keep unbelievable ledgers to keep track of it all," he says. "The profits aren't there because of the taxes. If you want profits, you have to have it dialed in. There will be audits by the IRS, and some people will fail."
Despite the hurdles, Monarch says the marijuana industry will continue to pump money into the local economy, and more tourists will come to the valley to check out both the booming wine industry as well as the pot industry.
"It's mayhem now — it's the wild West," Monarch says. "But the dust will settle."