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Pot to Produce

Why some marijuana growers are getting into salad greens

Terabyte Drive in Reno, Nevada, looks like a thousand other corporate American wastelands: miles of nondescript buildings with signs stating their business — SOLAR, DATA, IT — or FOR LEASE. At the end of the road is an unmarked warehouse that looks like all the others, save for windows blacked out from the inside. Here, Pat Gallagher is showing me his tomatoes. Under harsh fluorescent lights, row after row of plants are spaced tightly together, branch touching branch, taller than the 5-foot-8 Gallagher. He walks the rows, trimming roots here, plucking dead leaves there, swatting at a small mosquito that’s found its way into the humid, 5,400-square-foot space.

Gallagher, who is 40 years old, is slight, smart, and a bit on edge. With blue eyes and some chin stubble, he has the look of someone who worries a lot. He got into hydroponics — growing plants in water, without soil — nearly 20 years ago, but back then he grew a different crop: marijuana. Gallagher has long used medical marijuana to manage a childhood back injury, and by the late 1990s, he says, he wanted to “grow his own medicine.” “I’m a small guy, so I got over hoeing dirt. After doing that a couple times my back just wouldn’t,” he says. “So I said, ‘I’m gonna learn about water — why do all these other countries grow in water and we don’t?’” He began researching hydroponics and eventually opened a supply store in Reno with his father.

Today, Gallagher is one of an increasing number of hydroponic growers who have transitioned from mari­juana to produce. “I like to grow anything anyone tells me can’t be grown hydroponically,” he says. “Watermelons. Hops was a good one; no one believed it was possible.”

Hydroponic farming is booming, along with other forms of “controlled-environment agriculture.” Because indoor operations use up to 90 percent less water than outdoor farms, don’t have to use many pesticides, and can grow a large volume of food in a relatively small space, they’ve become popular with sustainability-minded restaurants and grocery stores. But as recently as ten years ago, growing fruit and vegetables inside didn’t make sense in the U.S. market. While the practice has long been central to the Dutch and Japanese food systems, in the U.S., the relatively cheap cost of land and water and the high cost of lighting and indoor growing systems combined to make hydroponics too expensive for anything but a high-value cash crop like marijuana.

Today, thanks in part to the cannabis industry, that calculus has changed. Marijuana growers have refined hydroponic technology in ways that have driven down the price. Meanwhile, the cost of land and water has gone up, and consumers have become more willing to pay a slight premium for local, sustainable produce. Given that “tomatoes” is a code word for “weed” in hydroponic supply stores, it’s fitting that nearly 50 percent of the country’s actual tomatoes are now grown indoors.

Tyler Baras, a hydroponic farmer who goes by Farmer Tyler, runs an internship at the GrowHaus, a hydroponic greenhouse in Denver that supplies lettuces to local clients including Whole Foods, Safeway, and the Denver Zoo. Baras says about a quarter of his interns are transitioning from growing cannabis to growing produce. The profit margins are usually narrower, he says, but “it’s a different vibe in [marijuana growing], and not everyone likes it.” Baras initially moved to Denver from Florida to attend THC University, billed as “The Premier Cannabis Training Center,” but decided to grow vegetables instead because he likes the “wholesome, generous” spirit of the community. He now co-hosts a gardening show on his local PBS station.

For Gallagher, the transition was more about stability and legal concerns. He says he “has always respected the law” and that with three young daughters, he eventually grew wary of what he calls “a greed business — and a scary one because who do you trust?” So last year, Gallagher shuttered his hydroponic shop and partnered with his brother-in-law to found Fenway Hydroponics. They leased the warehouse and started to experiment with different types of tomatoes, hoping to hit on one that will deliver a decent, if not cannabis-level, profit. “I’m just trying to find a good enough niche to where it will start paying before I’m working at Costco or somewhere else,” Gallagher says. Today about half a dozen people work in the warehouse, which he describes as “more of an R&D facility than anything else,” although it does supply a local restaurant.

With its bright lights and zigzagging plastic tubing, the setting feels almost clinical, but Gallagher is every bit the farmer as he walks between the rows, rattling off different varietals and muttering about overgrown roots. In a variation on a “bucket system” that Gallagher created in 2000, the plants are submerged at the roots in a network of black buckets, and nutrients are supplied as needed throughout their growth cycles. “It’s the only U.S.-made bucket system,” he boasts. “And it uses way less water than other hydroponic systems.” At some point, Gallagher hopes to license it, but for now it’s proprietary, with at least one possible exception.

Snoop’s looking at this system right now,” Gallagher claims. He says he first met Snoop Dogg backstage at a Reno concert 15 years ago and told him that his bucket system grew the best cannabis around. Gallagher remembers offering a sample to prove it. Snoop’s management did not respond to requests for comment, but Gallagher says the rapper, known to be discriminating in these matters, was impressed.