Hydroponics puts pot on Main Street

By: Gus Thomson, Journal Staff Writer
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Is a modern-day Gold Rush taking place that centers on loosening marijuana restrictions and the rise of indoor, hydroponic pot grows? Or has the bottom fallen out of the market in Auburn and other California communities? Auburn has four storefronts selling all the equipment needed to grow everything from tomatoes to marijuana – three that have popped up in the past two years. But with Prop. 19 going down to defeat in November and more growers with plenty of pot looking at more competition to supply medicinal marijuana cooperatives, businesses are providing mixed messages on the health of hydroponics. One a recent Saturday at Quail Mountain Ranch hydroponics store, about 100 people attended a celebration “open house,” many wearing clothing festooned with cannabis leaf images. Quail Mountain Ranch sells across the U.S. and even internationally. Owner Bud Neville said he’s looking at expanding to another location. “It’s amazing to think where I was – struggling to pay my bills three years ago and now with a booming business,” he said. At Tell 2 Friends of Auburn Ravine Road in Auburn, co-owner Brian Knego said his business took a sudden downward turn in November. “Three months ago, I would have been bragging,” Knego said “But the bottom fell out. Now the economy is so bad it’s affecting everything.” Like many “hydro” storeowners, Knego is neutral when it comes to how customers are employing the lights and other indoor growing equipment. “We try to get them to grow food but they do what they want,” Knego said. But Neville, of Quail Mountain Ranch on Palm Avenue, said that his store is continuing to experience growth as growers see opportunities to profit from medicinal marijuana markets. Neville said his store is willing to help growers learn what is both a science and a lot of labor-intensive work. “Right now, clubs don’t look at it unless it’s top shelf,” Neville said. Placer County sits next to a booming medipot industry in Sacramento County, with little doubt of some suppliers in the foothills. Neville said that he’s seeing an industry that is providing hope and new income for many people – particularly in the construction industry – who have been battered by the economic downturn. How big the marijuana crop in Placer County is can’t start with a tangible number. Placer County assistant information officer Mike Fitch said the county Agriculture Department annually counts production of crops, based on information supplied by farms. “But we have no way of knowing whether marijuana is a top cash crop because it’s not a legal, agricultural cash commodity,” Fitch said. For some growers, the work is hard and not necessarily lucrative. George Miller, a rural Placer County medicinal marijuana grower, said that his outdoor pot crop harvested last fall wasn’t a moneymaker for him, despite some days where he was working 36 hours straight to secure healthy, potent foliage. Miller said he lost about half his crop due to a theft and then a rainstorm. During the summer and fall, Miller was buzzed by a Placer County Sheriff’s Office helicopter but was never visited or raided. “I had no problems,” Miller said. “From what I understand, people who did it legally didn’t have problems.” What Miller did observe as the harvest season continued was that the market became saturated with pot and growers were taking sometimes $1,000 a pound for product that would have fetched much more than that before more people began to get into planting. “The bottom of the market dropped out,” Miller said. “And quality was a major factor this year – although I had dispensaries call back and ask me for more.” The fall crop also marked the first that reflected a state court decision on the amount of marijuana that could be grown for medicinal use. Detective Steve Slattery of the Placer County Sheriff’s Office said the standard “6 mature plants,12 immature plants and 8 oz. of trimmed leafy product” rule no longer applies as an upper limit for medicinal marijuana growers. For Miller, as an example, his attorney advised he could grow up to 90 plants. Slattery said the Sheriff’s Office now determines “what is reasonable” as a standard for medicinal marijuana grows. “There no longer is a magic number,” he said. The rules around pot use were also changed this year for non-medicinal marijuana possession. Instead of a low-level misdemeanor for possession of less than an ounce, it’s now treated by law enforcement and the courts as a citation. It’s handled in traffic court and the fine is $100. Sgt. Victor Pecoraro of the Auburn Police, said that the possession charge before the new year wasn’t one that would have resulted in an arrest. The change in state law also applies to possession of less than an ounce of marijuana in a vehicle. It too has been reduced to a citation. Neville said he’s excited about the future of hydroponic gardening – and he’s drawing no distinction between customers growing tomatoes and growing cannabis. Neville cites higher fuel prices and less water for agriculture as two reasons why hydroponic gardening is the wave of the future – and not just for marijuana. But he also sees the recent uptick in providing hydroponic supplies in the foothills as an economic driver. Neville can attest to being close to losing his own home three years ago and seeing his foray into hydroponic sales lift him up and out of a financial quagmire. He opened the store in November 2009 and it has since doubled in size. As well as the four hydroponics stores, at least one other nursery in Auburn is marketing a line of indoor growing equipment and Home Depot has also moved into the market. Internet listings also show hydroponics dealers nearby in Penryn, Loomis, Rocklin, Colfax, and Roseville. “The bottom line is it’s the only growing industry in this area and it’s going to become the future of agriculture,” Neville said. --------------------------------------------------- Fast facts: Pot profits - Estimated annual value of California marijuana crop is $14 billion - No. 2 agricultural production is milk and cream at $7.3 billion, according to the USDA - Estimated tax for state from California marijuana crop is $1.3 billion - $200 million in annual sales at California medical pot dispensaries and co-ops Source: