Eric Cooper has a sort of "The Dude" vibe: Hawaiian shirt, leather brown sandals and a bushy silver goatee. He smoked weed for the first time when he was about 14. He’s a former contractor and registered nurse. Cooper grew medical marijuana, and now he’s one of the owners of Monkey Grass Farms in Wenatchee, Washington.
Monkey Grass Farms is one of the big boys: a tier-three Washington state-licensed indoor pot grow. That means they can nurture about 21,000-square-feet of marijuana plants.
It has taken $100,000 of start-up, investors, lots of friends and family, and four months to set up this major grow. Inside, it’s dark, humid and green. Fans and machinery hum. And the plants are all bathed in eye-piercing light -- and party music.
“We’ve have approximately 300,000 total watts in lights here." Cooper said. "We brought in enough lumber to frame a whole house.”
Not quite ready
Twenty and 30-somethings with badges around their necks scurried around the building, going from plant to plant like bees on flowers in late summer. The place looks like the inside of Costco – just filled with a whole lot of pot.
But you won't see any of that choice bud in stores at the beginning of July.
Cooper said their marijuana needs about four months to go from cutting to harvest. Monkey Grass and other producers still need a couple more weeks to dry down, package, test and deliver their product. So that means no Monkey Grass until mid-July.
And that’s the story with many of growers in Washington. It takes a while to set up these big grows -- and to actually grow the product. Cooper said he stopped answering his phone because stores have been hassling him.
A seller's market?
The state’s Liquor Control Board has predicted a possible shortage of marijuana in the first few weeks of July, when pot stores open. And that puts the growers in control.
“We’re looking for shelf space," Cooper said. "If they want a percentage share of our crop, we want a percentage of shelf space. And it’s going to be the prime shelf space.”
Monkey Grass is following a model of more established agricultural crops in Washington. Many commodities in Eastern Washington, like grapes, potatoes, and blueberries, are grown on contract. And Cooper said Monkey Grass is being kind of choosy where their product goes.
“My daughters have been real good about going out and meeting with them," Cooper said. "Looking at their locations. Getting a general feel for their type of management style. Are they more business-like, or more like 'let’s go out and smoke a joint?'”
Monkey Grass plans to harvest a fresh crop nearly every week. Cooper said he thinks the market will steady in about two to three months.
Resins, edibles, sodas and other pot products will come along. But they won’t likely be on store shelves at first. That’s because they take even more time for baking, processing and testing. And no marijuana kitchens have been licensed by the state agriculture department yet.
Cooper is optimistic that Monkey Grass will be licensed to also grow outdoors soon. He’s already building the facility. Cooper said figuring out this frontier business is too much fun. "It’s like the wild west,” he added.
He just wishes he could get his product into consumers’ hands a bit quicker. He’s hoping the pot business chills out by October. By then he plans on being in Maui sipping a little umbrella drink.
"Do I love that plant? It’s been good to me for the last 35 to 40 years," Cooper said. "It’s kept me a little sane, I should say. I love my family, I like my weed.”
Jordan Schrader with The News Tribune of Tacoma, Washington, contributed to this story. Read his companion piece here.