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September 3rd, 2014 KATE WILLSON | Cover Story
 

Green Rush

Legal marijuana crops are redefining rural Washington towns—and making one-time illegal growers and their new investors rich.

lede_4044(scroller)IMAGE: Kate Willson

Riverside, Wash.—Apple orchards, pastures and alfalfa fields fan out from the Okanogan River along an area locals call the Flats. The land here in north central Washington is baked amber, fringed by sage and lined by pines that trace the river from its source in British Columbia. Low humidity, clear skies and a late frost make the hills ideal for crops.

That’s why Jeremy Moberg came here to plant his pot.

For more than two decades, Moberg, 40, grew marijuana in this region, always keeping it out of sight from the sheriff (who lived next door to Moberg in town), Drug Enforcement Administration helicopters, and crooks who might poach his bounty.

He supported himself and a family on the money from selling his pot, $4,000 a month in the early years, and double that after he had honed his craft. Later he tried to go straight, was laid off from his job, was arrested and had to rely on his mother for money, and friends for meals.

Moberg is back in business—and on the precipice of becoming a millionaire.

He is now one of 170 growers licensed by Washington state to feed a voracious demand for legal pot. Voters here in 2012 agreed to legalize recreational use of marijuana, and retail sales started eight weeks ago. But demand outstrips supply.

Moberg’s is the biggest outdoor grow operation in Washington, and it’s only a fraction of the size it will be within two years. His CannaSol Farms is preparing to move more than a ton of pot into stores in its first harvest that could net Moberg (who a year ago couldn’t afford a car) $5 million.

“It’s a stress release, not having to worry about it,” Moberg says of the end of anti-pot laws. “Not being scared all the time. This is what we’ve been trying to do our whole lives.”

Moberg has become an unlikely navigator of a post-prohibition world. His business is transforming nearby Omak and Okanogan (populations 4,845 and 2,552, respectively), conservative towns in one of the poorest counties in the state.

Voters in Okanogan County narrowly supported the statewide measure to legalize marijuana two years ago. The Omak City Council, school principal and some orchard owners bristle at the influence Moberg and other illegal growers who have gone legit are having on their community.

Without question, the forces of big money and pot changing rural towns will arrive in Oregon if voters here approve Measure 91 in November. Investors are already circling. And as it is in Okanogan County, it will be hard to say no to the millions spent at local stores buying equipment, on labor and construction, and at hotels and restaurants that house and feed increasingly bigger harvesting crews.

It’s all part of the coming “green rush.”


HARVEST TIME: Marijuana plants mature at CannaSol Farms faster than its fledgling staff can process the buds.
IMAGE: Kate Willson


Moberg drives his dusty Honda Ridgeline to the Home Depot in Omak. His cellphone hasn’t stopped ringing since he left his farm five miles away. People call looking for jobs. Moberg hires someone to work security around the perimeter of the pot farm. Another caller wants to share a new strain of marijuana Moberg might be interested in growing. Moberg tells him to drop it off with his foreman, then recommends increasing the amount of time the man exposes his plants to sunlight.

“You’ll shave a week off,” he says. “It will make your buds rock hard.”

Moberg jumps out off his truck. He’s skinny, not because he exercises or does physical work on the farm (he doesn’t) but because he doesn’t stop to eat. The sun has etched deep lines into his tanned forehead. He often arrives at work in the same plaid shirt and khaki shorts as the day before.

At Home Depot he fills his arms with 12 pairs of trimming sheers and 10 bags of trellis strings, and drags six heavy-duty 27-gallon storage tubs. He speeds through Wal-Mart grabbing Hefty Ziploc bags, rubbing alcohol for cleaning hands, a knife sharpener and a corkboard for his office Then it’s on to Hamilton Farm Equipment for five more pairs of pruning shears.

Here, as at Home Depot and Wal-Mart, Moberg reaches into a blue banker’s pouch filled with bills and pays in cash. (Moberg proves to be distracted: He often forgets where he’s left the pouch of cash, and recently misplaced a hefty bag of marijuana.)

Everywhere he goes, people know Moberg—and like the fact he’s spending money. Moberg spent only $32.45 on the shears at Hamilton Farm Equipment, but he says he has dropped more than $30,000 on irrigation supplies and machinery since starting CannaSol Farms last fall.

Pot growers have always operated in Okanogan County, but not on this scale. The county is bordered by Canada to the north, and hemmed in by the Cascade Range and Lake Roosevelt. The Colville Indian Reservation cuts through the lower half of the county, skirting Omak and Okanogan across Highway 97. The tribe’s casino brings in tourists and jobs.

Windowless concrete buildings, where orchard owners store apples and pears after harvest, skirt the roads, and 18-wheel trucks pass through weighted with hay barrels and fruit.

“The community really identifies itself as an apple community or an alfalfa community,” Moberg says. “They haven’t gotten to the point where they see us as a marijuana community.”

A crew from the 420 Collective, a neighboring grow where Moberg is a paid consultant, stop at the Breadline Cafe in Omak every day for lunch and dinner. David Creamer, manager of the nearby Best Western Plus Peppertree Inn, says marijuana-harvest crews fill up to 10 rooms a week.

“It’s a chunk of business we didn’t have last year,” Creamer says. “It’s a legitimate business that’s untapped, if you’re in the position to establish yourself.”

And Moberg, the emerging prince of what once was the community’s underground economy, is at the center of attention. He zips into Safeway to buy a chicken, bacon and avocado footlong. A woman sipping soup waves.

“Hi, Jeremy,” she says. 

He nods and smiles. “That,” Moberg says quietly, “is a local judge.”


WORKING HARD FOR THE MONEY: CannaSol Farms owner Jeremy Moberg—after running illegal marijuana-growing operations for more than 20 years—now spends most of his time talking to customers, clients, lobbyists, lawmakers and reporters.
IMAGE: Kate Willson


Kelli Johnson leans into a planter box and pinches a long stem of thick marijuana leaves between her thumb and forefinger, then pulls down with a snap. The leaves from the 5-foot plant drop to the polypropylene ground cover under her bare feet. She’s preparing plants for harvest by culling bigger leaves that will be composted. The harvesters are really after the dense bunches of buds—some the size of lemons, others the size of baguettes.

Rain unleashed from a lightning storm the previous night has settled the dust and cooled the air at Moberg’s half-acre plot of marijuana.

Johnson, 33, sweats through her black tank top. She’s also wearing a barcode badge, as does everyone who works inside Moberg’s compound.

The nursery is surrounded by an 8-foot fence topped with security cameras and barbed wire, similar to the kind you see encircling prisons. Green fabric along the fence shields from view what’s going on inside. It’s the first of six heavily guarded grow operations expected to go up on the 10-acre site. The security and fencing are required by law, but the screens also help defend against wind that might kick up dust into the buds.

Johnson quit nursing school to take this job. “My dad would be proud to see his daughter working at a marijuana farm,” says Johnson, who grew up in Mount Vernon tending her parents’ plants. “It’s a family tradition.”

Johnson has experience, but most of Moberg’s crew is new and takes too long harvesting the weed. An air-pressured nail gun pumps off rounds as a team of construction workers erect a 3,000-square-foot processing and visitors center.

For now, three-member crews cut the plants—all about shoulder height—and hang them upside down in a makeshift room. Trimmers strip each branch, tossing away stems and keeping leaves that will be used for joints and buds that will go into 2-gram sealed packets for sale in Washington’s licensed weed stores.

It has to be done fast—18 workers are trying to harvest more than 200 plants over the next week. They’re running behind schedule because Moberg can’t find enough skilled pot harvesters to keep up with demand.

Most will make near the $9.32-an-hour minimum wage, and they’ll also get samples of the strains Moberg grows.

One harvester, on the job just three days, worked nights in a Spokane gas station until he was laid off from that job. Another harvester is a stay-at-home mom who tried bartending but hated dealing with drunks, she says. Another was a limo driver. Kyle Plankers came to CannaSol after he was fired from a warehouse job for singing “John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt.”

“It’s a groundbreaking business,” Plankers, 28, says. “I’ve learned a lot about growing and eventually, down the line, that might turn into something.”


PRUNING SHEARS: Kelli Johnson quit nursing school to take a job at CannaSol Farms. She hopes to start her own growing operation one day.
IMAGE: Kate Willson


Moberg spends his life agitated at the injustices he sees. He easily slips into rants about how the U.S. Forest Service handles wildfires (“it’s a reactionary policy”), the desecration of steelhead habitat in Johnson Creek (“no one seems to care”), and coin-operated tire-inflating machines at gas stations (“air should be free”).

He was born in Moses Lake and raised by his father, a lawyer and onetime judge, and his mother, a third-grade teacher. “He’s always been so driven,” says his mother, MaryAnn Bennett. “He’s always made these lists of things to accomplish and a five-year plan. He was just charging forward.”

At age 14, Moberg saw injustice in the amount of paper his school was throwing away, prompting him to launch the first recycling program at his middle school. In high school, he organized opposition to the Gulf War and ignited anger among his peers. The school newspaper ran a photo of him in tears at an anti-war forum, where his classmates verbally attacked him.

He got hate mail about his Gulf War stand and transferred to a Catholic high school in Spokane, where at 17 he was promptly expelled for dealing pot and, he says, later arrested for possession.

After going through rehab, Moberg started his pot operation in a Spokane basement apartment, with only enough space and light to grow a pound of weed at a time. He soon expanded into bigger quarters.

“You could grow 4 pounds and make $4,000 per pound,” he says. “No one was getting rich at that scale. It was like a teacher salary.”

His pot sales paid his tuition at the Evergreen State College in Olympia, where he earned a degree in environmental sciences, and he later made enough money to buy 100 acres on a lake in the foothills above the Okanogan Flats. There he and a girlfriend raised a daughter, now 8, along with marijuana and a dapple-gray Arabian horse named Lauren.

Moberg tried going straight, but he and his girlfriend split up, and he was laid off in 2011 by the environmental consulting firm that had him surveying streams and rivers. He couldn’t make as much selling pot: Washington was awash in weed, thanks to medical marijuana and a flood of black-market pot from California and Oregon, driving down the price.

Then Moberg got in trouble with the law. A woman he’d been dating called the police when he took his backpack out of her car. A month later, in January 2012, he went into an AT&T store and stole the SIM card tray out of a phone so he could call a prospective employer. Both theft charges were ultimately dismissed.

“It was desperation,” he says. “You lose your job and start making bad decisions.”


A GREEN THUMB: Moberg teaches new trimmers how to speed up the process of cutting stems and leaves away from the best of the bud.
IMAGE: Kate Willson


It’s payday at CannaSol, and Moberg’s office manager sifts through the twice-a-month payroll: a stack of $20, $50 and $100 bills that total $12,000. Despite its newfound legitimacy, the pot business still operates largely on cash. Federal laws classify cannabis as a Schedule I drug alongside heroin, and Moberg says banks get jumpy about dealing with drug money. Besides, he doesn’t like that banks charge a cash-handling fee.

Moberg saw his chance to make a comeback after Washington voters approved legalized marijuana in 2012.

He applied for a license from the Washington State Liquor Control Board to grow marijuana for legal sales. Moberg’s brother, a lawyer, and private investors from Florida formed a Seattle company called Yesca to buy 10 acres on the Okanogan Flats, and Moberg leases the land. In addition to running his farm, CannaSol, Moberg consults for 15 other growing operations in the state.

An outdoor pot farm runs at about one-tenth of the cost of indoor growing, largely because it doesn’t need as much electricity. A study cited by The Seattle Times last year estimated that the carbon burned to produce 2.2 pounds of marijuana indoors was equivalent to driving across the country seven times. By comparison, Moberg’s farm uses 220-volt outlets, the same as a toaster or laptop computer.

His years growing pot illegally have given him a competitive advantage. He’s developed trade secrets in the art of “depping.”

Marijuana buds sprout in darkness, and depping—depriving them of  sunlight with thick plastic tarps—creates an artificial night. Moberg says many growers don’t know how to do this right. “To grow weed, depping is not necessary,” Moberg says. “But if you’re really going for the top tier of flower production, then it’s critical.”

Here’s how the cash rolls in: The pot is harvested, bagged and tested for THC levels. Moberg then drives shipments to retailers along the I-5 corridor from Seattle south to Vancouver.

That means he’s on the road carrying huge loads of marijuana or—because retailers are also dealing in cash—bags of bills.

Pot retailers tell WW they are buying their supply at about $10 a gram, a price they expect to drop to around $7 this fall, as the first legal harvest rolls in.

Moberg has sold very little of his crop so far—about 35 pounds. For that he’s grossed about $150,000. The state takes a 25 percent cut, leaving him with about $112,500 before costs.

That’s nothing compared to what the CannaSol site could yield in the next few weeks: A half-acre of 3,000 plants will produce at least one ton of marijuana. After taxes, that’s nearly $5 million.


This potential of success has made Moberg the man to see in Okanogan County for investors and fellow growers who want to make a killing in the new marijuana business.

Moberg heads 35 miles west to Twisp, an affluent tourist town. At the Twisp River Pub, Moberg shakes hands with two young medical marijuana growers—Peter, 32, is a scuba instructor who builds custom airplanes, and Matt, 31, was a snowboard bum whose parents encouraged him to move back from Utah to grow weed. They are clearly excited to meet Moberg.

“It’s a golden opportunity,” says Matt’s father, Bruce, a slender, graying retiree sitting at the next table. “This is the biggest opportunity, to get in on the ground floor. Who knows what will happen?”

Matt’s parents staked the money and will allow the use of their property on the Methow River. Matt and Peter plan to call their grow operation the Lazy Bee.

Matt, Peter and Moberg talk about when to water, what types of organic fertilizers work best, and when to manipulate the light cycle.

“We need to have 2 feet [of growth] by April,” Peter says. “By May, we need to start our first dep.”

“The first harvest is going to test high,” Moberg says.

Peter says he hopes to get 15 grams per square foot from his first harvest on a half-acre plot (a conservative market value of $4.4 million).

“Why can’t you do 30 grams per square foot?” Jeremy asks. “Fifteen grams, that’s pretty unambitious.”

Moberg samples some of their pot by squeezing buds from four different strains, smashing the buds against his nostrils and breathing in deeply. He shakes his head. All the strains have been mixed together in the same can, he says. He can’t tell one from another.

Moberg then lets Matt pick up the check. Moberg’s cellphone rings, and he walks off to take the call.


IMMERSED: Moberg—swimming in a lake adjacent to his property—believes his experience as a marijuana grower can benefit Oregon if voters pass Measure 91. “I want to help Oregon get this right,” he says. “I would love to work at a policy level and with the agencies in charge of rulemaking.”
IMAGE: Kate Willson


In Omak, the City Council has refused to issue a business license to acupuncturist Montana Dutton, who wants to open a retail marijuana store between a video-game store and a payday lender.

The Okanogan County Community Coalition, a powerful contingent of anti-marijuana advocates made up of behavioral health counselors, educators and members of the Mormon church, has lobbied the council to keep Dutton out.

“My son won’t become addicted to apples, corn or wheat—there’s a massive difference,” David Kirk, the principal of Omak High School, told the county commissioners last year.

Okanogan County Sheriff Frank Rogers doesn’t like pot and voted against making it legal. He’s said as much to Moberg, a neighbor whom Rogers always suspected was an illegal grower and dealer.

Rogers says it’s now odd to respond to a 911 call and walk into a house filled with marijuana smoke. Deputies have taken to interviewing witnesses outside to avoid getting high. “The public says, ‘We want legal marijuana,’” Rogers says. “So we deal with it.” 

Rogers’ beef isn’t with voters or growers. It’s with the Washington State Liquor Control Board, which has decided not to share the tax revenue with local governments, but expects those agencies to enforce the new legal pot laws.

“They were telling the growers to call the sheriff’s office to inspect their places,” Rogers says. “I told everyone that they can tell the liquor board to go pound sand. Hopefully Oregon is a little more organized.”


GREEN HALF-ACRE: Moberg’s CannaSol harvest will reap more than 15,000 times per acre than neighboring alfalfa fields and includes a high-potency strain, Tangy Kush (left).

IMAGE: Kate Willson, Tangy Kush photo courtesy John Akin / CannaSol Farms


Oregon can expect to see the same kind of grow operation—and the cash flood and local tension—if voters approve Measure 91.

One Washington grower expects to expand his operations south if voters pass the initiative.

Nazareth Victoria moved from Pennsylvania to Seattle last year to establish residency, as Washington law requires, and invest in the legal pot business. It’s a business he knows well. A federal jury convicted him in 2000 of distributing marijuana and sent him to prison for nearly two years.

That didn’t stop the state of Washington from granting him a grower’s license; his plot is next to CannaSol’s, and he’s hired Moberg as a consultant to set it up.

“I plan to open in every state that legalizes it,” Victoria says. “I don’t see any residency requirement in Oregon’s bill.”

Moberg has begun fielding calls from Oregon investors who anticipate voters will pass Measure 91 this fall, and he hopes to expand an association of outdoor growers he founded to help legislators and regulators understand his business.

“They can learn from our mistakes,” he says. “Oregon already has a bigger outdoor contingency than Washington, so it could come more naturally.” 

 
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