“The Scientist Pot Farmer”
by Brooke Borel
April 7, 2016
Hope you’re doing well. I have a pitch that I think is a good fit for Undark, and Deborah Blum suggested I send it to you. It’s below — looking forward to hearing your thoughts!
Thanks for reading,
Earlier this year, Alan, an expert at controlling agricultural pests in Washington State, started getting calls from farmers asking questions about how to get rid of aphids, powdery mildew, and spider mites. When Alan asked which crop the farmers needed to protect — a key detail in figuring out which pesticides or other methods to use, which he knows how to recommend for crops like blueberries and asparagus — the people on the other end would dance around the issue before blurting out Okay it’s pot, but it’s legal, I’m licensed, okay?
They might have been licensed, but these growers were clueless on how to protect their crop from pests, and they weren’t getting much help from state or federal agencies. As I explained recently at The Atlantic, for every other crop in the United States, pest control options are relatively easy. The EPA registers a label that describes how and where the pesticide can be used. Farmers can look up what is legal, safe, and effective and buy it.
But because pot is a Schedule 1 narcotic at the federal level, no pot pesticide labels exist, which has prompted some growers to use chemicals that aren’t even appropriate for food, such as over-the-counter roach killers. They’re also abusing products like the pesticide carbaryl to the point that residues on pot on dispensary shelves in Oregon and Washington have shown up at levels hundreds of times higher than is allowed by the EPA for foods like blueberries. There is essentially no research for pesticides used on marijuana to know whether using these products in these ways are dangerous — and if so, how dangerous (most universities haven’t researched cannabis farming practices because they don’t want to jeopardize their federal funding).
Alan, a bespectacled entomologist, is not a pot guy. He’s a laced-up scientist guy. He voted against Initiative 502, which proposed to legalize marijuana in Washington in 2012. But when the pot farmers started calling him, he felt obliged to answer their questions as best he could. He recalls one such conversation: “I said what are you using and he told me the product. And I said that doesn’t even kill mites. Where are you getting that?! And he told me he was getting it from a farm worker who sells it by the teaspoon. It was an eye-opener. An aha moment.”
Soon, Alan was receiving invitations to speak at public events, which eventually brought him to the state’s First Annual Cannabis Summit. He remembers addressing the crowd by saying: “You are not my people. This is not my world.”
And now it’s come to this: Alan is totally in this world anyway. In August, when we were doing a phone interview for my Atlantic piece, he sent me a photo via text message. In it, he stands in a field surrounded by tall security fences and stares expressionless at the camera, his thick glasses shaded by a tan baseball cap, arms akimbo. In front of him, vibrant green against the field’s pale soil, is a knee-high pot plant.
He now has 600 of them at his new pot farm in Washington, which he launched after obtaining a growing license last summer. He plans to use the farm to test for the best and safest pesticides, as well as to research other important unknown factors, such as the best fertilizer to use.
Alan isn’t just any researcher. At this point, he’s entirely independent, but he has experience in academia, industry, and government (he’s a former EPA employee). He says he sees a moral and ethical duty to show the new cannabis industry how to manage crops the right way. As he’s told me: “Somebody’s got to do something.”
But he also admits it’s not all about ethics. He sees a massive business opportunity. “It will be a billion dollar industry,” he says. “There needs to be research, and I hope to tap into those needs.”
I want to write about Alan’s experimental farm and the way he fell into this world as a way to explore the larger unprecedented issues presented by the fledgling marijuana industry — as this crop gains more ground across the country, the pesticide problem will only get worse and there are no signs that the EPA has a solid plan to fix it. Alan illuminates this issue and also proposes an intriguing answer. I see the narrative thrust of the piece involving Alan’s own journey from scientists to rule-breaker (he’s helped some folks procure illegal pesticides, for safety reasons) and pot-entrepreneur.
I see this piece at Undark because it sheds light on the government’s influence on scientific research. Scientists can’t study pot and pesticides without putting their funding at risk; meanwhile, we have potentially dangerous pesticides sneaking into this fast-growing industry. There’s a lot of money involved, which means folks will cut corners to save their crop in ways that just don’t happen with asparagus or blueberries. And here we have Alan, renegade scientist, trying to save the day. I think I could get the job done in 3500 words or so.
Regarding access, Alan has agreed to let me visit both his farm and his pot worker safety workshops, where he trains other farmers on pesticide use. As of now, no other reporter knows he exists. [Borel notes: This turned out not to be accurate. There had been some local press, but nothing that prevented Undark from assigning the story.] My story would require travel to Washington State, a rental car, and a hotel for a night or two.
More on me: My clear-eyed reporting on agriculture once got me placed on a quack conspiracy theorist’s hit list. I spent the past four years obsessing over the sex lives of bed bugs, as well as how we’ve tried to kill them for millennia (the result is my book Infested: How the Bed Bug Infiltrated Our Bedrooms and Took Over the World). I’m also a contributing editor at Popular Science, where I often cover agriculture and pesticides, and I’ve written for Aeon, Buzzfeed News, and Modern Farmer, among others. More clips are available at my website, below.