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Where Does A Strait-Laced Farmer Get Pot-Growing Expertise?

Joe Barrentine
The News Tribune
Research farmer Alan Schreiber and research assistant Tom Balotte, of Ag Development Group, talk about an ongoing research project in the fields of the 105-acre farm north of Pasco, July 2, 2014.

In eastern Washington, a pair of very different guys teamed up to embark on an experiment to grow Washington’s latest agricultural crop, legal marijuana. 

One of them, Alan Schreiber, is a strait-laced farmer. The other, Tom Balotte, is not a farmer; he’s a video-gaming techie.

Balotte also doesn’t smoke weed, but he does like to build things.

“I would tear [most of my toys] apart and then I’d lose the parts and never build them back up,” he said, recalling his childhood. “But as I got older I found more and more parts to put my toys back together.”

Balotte’s other love is gaming. You can tell by looking at his tattoos.

“This here is like the little sign of a video game, Oblivion, which is one of the Elder Scrolls games,” he said, pointing to his tattoos. “I’m a gamer.”

Balotte is also a mechanic. He has no traditional training, but he’s a tinkerer and he’s good at it.

Schreiber noticed that straight away when he met Balotte about a year ago.

“He is very, very good at what he does,” Screiber said.

Schreiber gave Balotte a job as a mechanic on his farm just north of Pasco, Washington.

Schreiber says they just clicked.

“We do like new projects. We like trying new things and different things,” he said. “And he’d come up with an idea, and I’d come up with an idea on doing this.”

A Back-Of-A-Napkin Concept

Things really came together last winter when they attended an agricultural conference in Portland. They were out for a few drinks after a long day of sessions when a light bulb went off: They would team up and use Schreiber’s farming expertise and Balotte’s mechanical wizardry to dip into this new pot farming experiment.

Credit Joe Barrentine / The News Tribune
The News Tribune
Researcher Tom Balotte of Ag Development Group in Eltopia, Washington inspects chemistry for a project July 2, 2014.

They scratched a modified hydroponic-like plan on the back of a bar napkin, and the partnership was born.

They knew the state was limiting the amount of square footage for each grower. So why not hatch a contraption that would grow more marijuana per square foot?

And, Balotte says, it’s not just about pot.

“If you design and perfect a way to grow cannabis efficiently, then maybe you can move on to other things with the same system,” he noted.

The prototype is a weird-looking machine about the size of a vintage Cadillac. It looks a bit like a massive Peruvian pan flute lying on its side. PVC tubes are lined up with cutout holes facing up. Netted cups are placed in each of these openings on the top of the tubes.

“There would be one plant in each of these cups and there would be a nutrient bath that would come in and would go down over the roots,” Schreiber said. “Eventually, the root ball would grow down to the bottom.”

Waiting For The State

The grow-system was completed in the spring. Right now, it’s gathering dust in a large greenhouse on the farm while the two collaborators wait for their pot-growing license from the state. There’s a bit of a queue — early 2,500 applications are pending — but Schreiber is hopeful.

“The state’s moving pretty slow on the applications. It’s probably going to take months,” he said. “And so we’ve kind of hit the pause button.”

But they’re ready to hit play as soon as the state lets them. And they have even more paper-napkin plans for how to alter this machine and make it produce even more pot, but that’s, as Schreiber said, “Off the record, off the record, off the record!”

Credit Joe Barrentine / The News Tribune
The News Tribune
Alan Schreiber takes a call from a farmer looking for help with a pest problem while inspecting an ongoing blueberry research project on his 105-acre farm in Eltopia, Washington.

While Scheiber is waiting, he has plenty of other things to keep him occupied. The pot experiment appealed to him as he’s an agricultural researcher as much as he’s a farmer.

On his farm outside of Eltopia, he’s growing over 300 types of crops, from cherries to white-fleshed watermelon, to purple-hued cauliflower.

Growing pot seems like a lot of hassle for someone that’s already trying to track all those crops as well as the pests and pesticides that go with them. So why did he want to do it?

“If you want to know what Washington agriculture is going to be like in the next five to 10 years from now, you can come to this farm and see it,” Schreiber said. “And cannabis is going to be another crop. And there is a tremendous need for research on, on cannabis.”

Schreiber says if his farm is approved to grow pot, he and Balotte will start building their growing systems by the drove and improving the design as they learn more. Until then, he’ll focus on this year’s summer harvest.


This project is a collaboration with Jordan Schrader of The News Tribune in Tacoma. Read his companion piece to this story. For more photos see our slideshow on Flickr.

Anna King calls Richland, Washington home and loves unearthing great stories about people in the Northwest. She reports for the Northwest News Network from a studio at Washington State University, Tri-Cities. She covers the Mid-Columbia region, from nuclear reactors to Mexican rodeos.