From Dirt to Dollars

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Using the SCROG method of cultivation, Techbud expects a harvest of about 1,200 pounds of cannabis this year – a big improvement over last year’s crop when the company was licensed late in the planting season. Photo by Byron Miller.

 

Byron Miller, the managing director of Techbud LLC, got an unexpectedly late start to the cannabis growing season in 2015. After obtaining his license in June, he barely managed to have plants in the ground at his north-central Washington farm before July 1. Miller feared his entire crop would consist of stunted plants with low THC levels.

As luck would have it, while his production numbers never reached their full potential, the overall quality of his crop was quite good, and the majority of his various strains reached about 20% THC.

His total output wasn’t exactly a bonanza, but Miller was happy to have produced more than 500 pounds of good flower. While the 2015 Techbud crop didn’t make Miller rich beyond his wildest dreams, it did generate enough revenue to pay his bills and get him through the winter and into the 2016 season.

He also had the good fortune to meet Terry Taylor, an experienced farmer and the managing director of the Sunflower Farm in nearby Brewster.

“Terry swears by a horse manure and native soil combination, and consistently grows plants that yield five to six pounds of bud,” Miller says. “I’ve been growing indoors for years, but successful outdoor production requires some special skills and techniques that indoor growers often don’t understand. So I was all ears when it came to advice from an experienced rural farmer who knows how to maximize production.”

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Techbud owner, Byron Miller, works in the garden.

Improving Operations

Fast-forward to the spring and summer of 2016, and Miller’s crop had a decidedly more vigorous appearance. Instead of planting late, Miller put plants in the ground early and fortified his soil with a commercial mix of horse manure and mulch.

Taylor happily relayed several pointers to Miller, including how to select the right size auger for his tractor, and a method of creating holes in the native soil that promoted natural expansion. This allowed Miller’s crop to grow out as well as up.

Another of Taylor’s proven techniques is the screen of green (SCROG) method, using a metal trellis that trains the plants to grow low and wide. It maximizes solar penetration while mitigating any potential damage from the strong winds that occasionally wreak havoc in the Okanogan Valley.

“I learned a lot of outdoor techniques from Terry that boosted my productivity,” Miller says. “He even had me install a golf course-style sprinkler that we use once a week to supplement the drip irrigation system. Terry believes that traditional sprinklers more closely mimic rain, and therefore promote horizontal root expansion, which leads to bigger, healthier plants.”

Miller, who hails from Seattle, but has made the small town of Omak home for the last three years, is quick to point out that help from people like Taylor has been invaluable.

“Like most city folks, I’d heard about the country farmer ethic of neighbors helping each other and passing on valuable tips on agricultural best practices,” he says. “I guess I never dreamed it would be so pervasive and common in real life, and I’m just amazed at how helpful the sun-grower community has been.”

Early on in his cannabis venture, Miller also made friends with legendary strain guru and medical marijuana advocate Michael “Buffalo” Mazetti. Their talks led to a collaboration in which a section of the Techbud canopy would be dedicated to proven CBD strains like Harlequin and Charlotte’s Web.

“Buffalo is a big believer in the benefits of medical marijuana, and together we decided to put aside a section of the farm that we dedicated to the cultivation of marijuana for those who need medicine,” Miller says.

Their hope is that as the market for legal marijuana expands and matures, there will be an ever-increasing number of consumers who will ask for high-CBD strains that are stocked for their intrinsic therapeutic value and not just their mind-altering qualities.

Looking at the difference between his 2015 and 2016 crops, it’s clear that Miller’s work has paid off with massive improvements in both quantity and quality. His sea of healthy green plants marks a beautiful contrast to the deep blue skies of north-central Washington, and his production techniques have obviously taken a quantum leap forward.

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Techbud’s top strains include ATF, C-Train and Afgoo Berry.

A farmers co-op

What Miller lacked in outdoor farming experience, he made up for with his strong connections to the Washington retail community on the west side of the state. A natural partnership developed within the cannabis growers of north-central Washington.

It became apparent to Miller that the local cannabis farmers knew a lot about cultivation and had major advantages when it came to production economies. However, those same factors that gave them a leg up in the cultivation of marijuana were a disadvantage when it came to bringing the product to market. Miller understood that the 250-mile trip to major retailers in Seattle cost the company more than just the five hours of driving time.

“What appeared to be happening was that even the bigger growers over here were unable to maintain good, steady relationships with the main consumer markets because of the inefficiencies and problems in the transportation and distribution of product,” Miller says.

After some discussions, several Okanogan County growers formed a cooperative that would jointly market high-quality, outdoor-grown flower under the Pineapple Plantation brand this fall and winter.

“It seemed like a no-brainer to me,” Miller says. “Cattle ranchers do it, apple orchardists do it, and just about everyone in the ag world figures out how to work together to reduce costs.”

Retailers, by their very nature, want to reduce, not expand their vendor base. A co-op makes sense because it allows farmers to be farmers, and reduces all the time and money required to run a distribution business — “something most marijuana growers are simply not very good at in the first place,” Miller says.

“It’s never made sense to me to that 600 growers could expect to get their products into retail outlets.”

The growers co-op may not be a unique idea in the world of traditional ag production, but it indicates a potentially interesting and forward-thinking development in the rapidly evolving legal marijuana marketplace.

 

Editor’s Note: This is a follow-up to a story published in the January 2016 issue of Marijuana Venture titled “Dirt Weed” that profiled Byron Miller and his farm. In 2015, his crop was grown on a shoestring budget and planted in 100% untreated native soil, hence the article’s title.

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