As many people already know, last November Washington state, along with Colorado, voted to legalize the recreational use of marijuana for adults. You likely heard about the new law and you might even have seen the video clips of crowds of people getting spaced out underneath Seattle’s Space needle when pot officially became legal last month.
After passage of the state-wide referendum that made marijuana legal, Washington set up a new state system, regulated by the state’s Liquor Control Board, to license marijuana producers, processors and retailers, with the first stores scheduled to open in 2014.
Assuming the feds don’t crack down on the party.
(President Obama has stated that prosecuting recreational pot users in Washington and Colorado “wouldn’t make sense.” But the Justice Department has yet to issues any guidelines).
Here’s what’s more intriguing: What started out as a party for potheads has now turned into a potential business opportunity for Washington producers. According to a story in The Herald newspaper this week, Snohomish County farmer Bruce King has been raising pigs in the Snohomish River valley for seven years—he sold 2,300 pigs last year—but now he’s seriously considering switching to marijuana.
King’s farmland, which lies in a floodplain visible to the thousands of motorists driving across the long trestle that carries U.S. Route 2 east toward the county’s suburbs and the distant Cascade Mountains, often floods when winter rains or spring thaws send the Snohomish surging over its banks. But the proximity to the steady stream of commuters has its benefits.
“As a retail place to sell pigs, [the location] is fabulous,” King told the newspaper.
Although he said his farm is profitable, King is now considering a cannabis crop, and he said he’s not the only area farmer thinking about growing pot. “Every single farmer I’ve talked to has had this thought cross their mind,” he said.
He claimed he’s never smoked pot and has no interest in doing drugs but believes the new law will set off what the article termed “a kind of agricultural Gold Rush” for many farmers in the valley.
Indeed, the Washington Liquor Control Board has received numerous calls from people interested in growing pot for sale—many of whom claim they’ve already got a crop in the ground, according to Brian Smith, an agency spokesman. Currently, the state is soliciting public comments to shape its new system prior to the adoption of final regulations in May. The state’s application fee for a producer license is $250, with an annual $1,000 charge to renew the license.
Why shouldn’t farmers like King get a chance to be licensed as state-sanctioned pot growers?
An uncertain future
Right now, nobody’s getting rich raising pigs, and as Snohomish County continues to develop, urban sprawl is slowly eroding not just the land base available for farming, but with diminishing numbers of dairy farms and livestock operations, the local infrastructure of implement dealers and feed distributors needed to support viable animal agriculture is also in decline.
The future of production agriculture in western Washington—and in virtually every farming area adjacent to a growing metropolitan population base—is uncertain. What’s a heck of a lot less chancy is the market for marijuana. Approve or disapprove of its consumption, pot has far more fans willing to pay high prices (pardon the pun) for the product than there are consumers interested in shelling out premium prices for commodities like meat, milk and eggs.
As farmers like King see it, the legalization of a substance formerly demonized as a scourge on society has morphed into a simple equation of supply and demand.
“There’s no reason we can’t have people in this economy benefit from what they voted for,” he told the newspaper. “My attitude toward people who use pot has changed,” he said. “It’s now a legal product.”
Equally important, it’s now a profitable product, with some economists projecting that even after the state takes its cut, the net return per acre for growing pot could run as high as $60,000.
According to the story, King already has a greenhouse that produced 15 tons of basil last summer, along with tomatoes, melons and lettuce. But he was quick to state that, “There isn't another crop on this earth that has the kind of profit potential this one does.”
Is that a good thing for agriculture?
Personally, anything that keeps land in production—whether pigs or pot—is preferable to the pavement that comes with population sprawl.
And if it puts some bucks into the pockets of farmers accustomed to scraping by in years when the market goes bad, all the better.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.