By Greg James
Photos by Tom Lynch
Twenty miles south of the Canadian border on Highway 97 in Central Washington lies the small town of Tonasket. As communities go, it’s not particularly remarkable. In the summer there are rodeos, barbecues, a big Barter Faire and plenty of Harleys on the highway heading to points north. Supposedly Jack Black’s mom lives in town, and once in a while a big shot from Seattle shoots by in a Corvette or Porsche on his way to the wineries and resorts just north of the Canadian border.
The local economy reflects the eclectic mix of the community, which is mostly made up of hippies going back to the land and cowboys who never left. Cattle ranching, fruit and homegrown cannabis dominate the scene.
Tonasket sits in the middle of some of the world’s most productive apple and cherry orchards. Those orchards are incredibly productive for a reason … the climate.
The Okanogan Valley is considered ideal for the most popular varieties of apples and cherries. Braeburns, Red Delicious, Honeycrisps, Rainiers and Bings grow in the Okanogan like nowhere else. The summers are warm and dry, with midday highs in the 90s, and evening lows in the 70s. In the fall, through early October, the region stays dry and sunny, with temperatures dropping to the 70s during the day, and 50s in the evening. The climate that’s great for Honeycrisp apples and Bing cherries also turns out to be ideal for marijuana strains like Girl Scout Cookies and Juicy Fruit.
Building an Empire
Alan Deoliveira is the type of guy who knows a good thing when he sees it.
His friend Bill Whelan had secured 20 acres and a marijuana business license just west of Tonasket in the Apple Belt, and was looking for someone to manage it. At the same time, Alan was interested in putting his skills and ideas to work at a commercial marijuana farm, but didn’t have a license or a good location. When the two entrepreneurs talked about it over a beer at a social event, they realized they might be on to something. The flat property had power, a great well that produced upwards of 20 gallons per minute of pure spring water and 300 days of sunshine a year.
They also realized Alan had the skills and experience needed to create something special. He quickly managed to convince Whelan that he was the right guy for the job, and that his knowledge and management skills were crucial to creating a farm that would be viewed as a model for others to emulate. Whelan agreed to let his friend oversee the operation, and Alan went to work laying out detailed plans for the property and the Empire Experience brand.
“We got off to a rocky start,” Alan said. “Our license came in late, and we didn’t get our plants in the ground until June 18.” Complicating the matter was that the small cuttings all came straight over the Cascade Mountains from an indoor facility near Seattle, and were planted just prior to a week of unseasonably high temperatures during which afternoons approached 110 degrees.
“It was scary at first,” Alan said. “We thought we were done when the heat wave hit, and we watched with apprehension as the small cuttings suffered in the high heat and low humidity.”
Thankfully, cannabis is a very hardy plant, and after a week of withering heat, the days cooled and the plants started to recover and take off in the warm Eastern Washington sun. “We always knew this part of the state had nearly ideal conditions,” Alan explained. “We also knew that once in a while it gets hot. It’s a timing thing, and Mother Nature is obviously difficult to predict. We’re at about 1,500 feet elevation, and up there it’s a bit cooler than the valley, and the air often has a nice breeze. That keeps things feeling comfortable for both us and the plants.”
Right from the start, Alan went for big 300-gallon fabric pots with a high-quality soil of his own specifications. “We have a great relationship with a soil company, and I asked them to add a bit more mulch to my soil than they usually do,” he said.
As you can see, the results are spectacular, and the big robust plants pictured here, in early September, were just 10 weeks old when these photos were taken. Alan added: “When you use oversized soil containers, the plants can really take off and reach large dimensions quickly. They also stay greener longer and have less need for fertilizers and frequent watering.” With 930 females expected to produce 3-5 pounds each, he’s anticipating a harvest of roughly 3,500-4,000 pounds of top-shelf flower.
Alan went on: “I’m also really picky when it comes to how I run a business. It might not make a huge difference to have all the plants in a straight line, and many of them may not have required a full wire cover or stakes, but I like things orderly and well laid out. Each plant has its own individual trellis netting to support the heavy buds that will hang from them by early October. I like to anticipate potential problems, and I want my farm to work well, and look right, because I believe that if a business looks good, and makes the employees proud, they in turn will do a better job and take ownership and pride in what they do.”
If the farm has a Feng Shui feel about it, you can bet it’s no accident.
One of Alan’s goals was to experiment during the first year. He wanted to try several different strains to see if he could find the ideal plant for the warm sunny Okanogan Valley.
“We planted Girl Scout Cookies, Berry White, Harlequin, XXX and roughly 60 other strains,” he said. “They all seemed to thrive in that micro-climate, although I’d have to admit that early-flowering indica-dominant strains like Juicy Fruit are probably the safest bet due to the fact that there can occasionally be early frosts at our altitude and latitude.”
Alan has big plans going forward.
“The location we have is ideal, and I’ve been given the go-ahead to expand and offer our expertise to other license holders who might want to try the great outdoors and work with us,” he said. “Next year our plans are to erect a large greenhouse. This will enable us to put out much larger starts at the beginning of the season.”
Empire could be seen as a model for what future commercial marijuana businesses will look like. It has a well-run, organized appearance. The plants are grown in neat, straight rows, and the farm is managed in a way that minimizes costs, while maximizing yield and efficiency. On-site manager Trevor Jackson oversees the day-to-day operations, and is proud of the progress the facility has made in 2015. His attention to detail and pride in the business are evident the minute you walk through the big gates and onto the property.
Alan’s thoughts on the difference between indoor and outdoor cultivation make good sense.
“Indoor and outdoor (also known as sun-grown) both have a place in the market,” he said. “If done correctly, outdoor plants can be just as high quality as indoor. We produced Girl Scout Cookies last year that were 29% THC, which is pretty darn good. The main difference is that growing naturally under the sun takes more work, and involves more variables. With the indoor environment, you can control just about everything. Outside, you have a lot more to potentially deal with: Wind, hail, rain, cloudy days, grasshoppers, dust and even fire can be a concern.”
Tonasket was on the eastern edge of a massive wildfire that swept through Okanogan County.
In total, multiple wildfires in Eastern Washington scorched a state-record 900,000-plus acres of land.
“On the other hand,” Alan added, “the overall costs (of growing outdoors) can be much lower, as agricultural land is a lot less expensive to acquire than a warehouse in a big city, and electricity costs are negligible when you use natural sunlight.”
When asked for parting comments, Alan thought for a minute and then smiled.
“I’m all about having fun while also making something successful,” he said. “Creating and watching this farm evolve has been a labor of love for me and the people who work here. The neighbors have been great, and we love collaborating on projects and sharing information. After all, in a way we’re no different than the local orchardists who grow some of the world’s best varieties of apples or cherries. When you help each other, share information and work hard, the fruits of your labor become apparent.”
We couldn’t agree more!