Washington state producer experiments with growing cannabis sustainably
An evening squall has blown through rural Mason County, and the Hollingsworth family is still hard at work on their pot farm, long after the hired help has gone home.
It’s harvest time, and Raft Hollingsworth III – or RT3 – inspects tubs of marijuana buds, checking for any trace of mold. His sister, Joy, scrubs pair after pair of trimming scissors with alcohol. Their father brooms pooling groundwater into a recycling system.
We tend to think of pot as subversive, even anti-family. But on this farm, pot is a family affair.
Retired from a career with the Seattle Parks Department, Raft Hollingsworth Jr., 66, said he’s never worked harder. But he’s thrilled. “I’m here with my son and daughter,” he said. “It’s not the way I planned, but I couldn’t be happier.”
The family is attempting what some say can’t be done – growing quality pot under the sun in damp, gray Western Washington.
He sank his retirement funds into the venture and handles sales and deliveries. His sister, Jackie Roberts, a retired Boeing executive, helps prune plants. Joy, The Seattle Times’ 2002 high-school basketball player of the year and a former Seattle University coach, oversees processing. RT3, the maestro, conducts the entire operation. Even his grandma, Dorothy Hollingsworth, the first black woman in the state to serve on a school board, recently came down to the farm to celebrate her 96th birthday.
This family with deep Seattle roots now employs laid-off white mill workers on their six woodsy acres, not far from a state prison and a motorsports complex.
“It was tough living in the woods especially coming from Capitol Hill,” said RT3. “But you get used to the orchestra of noise. And I’ve never seen so many stars. If I’m away for more than two days now, I look forward to coming back to the farm.”
Washington’s decentralized legal pot system, with 1,085 licensed growers and counting, gives family farms a fighting chance, RT3 said. Rules limit farms to 30,000 square feet of growing area.
It’s still proved a challenge. “Profit? I don’t know when that’s going to happen. There are so many sunk costs in developing this property,” RT3 said.
The Hollingsworth Cannabis Company, or THC Co., is attempting what some say can’t be done. They’re trying to grow quality pot under the sun in damp, gray Western Washington.
It’s a leap of faith and there’s nothing to catch you. Farmers are the biggest risk-takers we have.
Raft Hollingsworth Jr.
The first year was rocky, as they made the leap from RT3’s experience growing illegally inside a house to state-regulated farming in Mason County greenhouses with clear plastic walls to welcome sunlight. Their first crops were destroyed by 70-mph winds that lifted an entire greenhouse into the air like a kite.
“It’s a leap of faith and there’s nothing to catch you,” said Raft Jr. “Farmers are the biggest risk-takers we have.”
His son surveyed the seven sturdier greenhouses, designed for northern climates, they bought after the windstorm disaster. He hopes they’ll yield year-round harvests of nearly 5,000 plants.
“The only way we could do it,” he said, “is as family.”
PowerPoint pitch for family
RT3 said he didn’t smoke pot when he was a Seattle Prep student. He heard it was bad for you. But when he got to the University of Washington he tried a joint. He went to the old International House of Pancakes and thought: “Everything I was told is a lie.”
He started growing it in his UW dorm (Lander, 6th floor). His first plants were scraggly. But they were his.
He loved the problem-solving challenges. His first plants grew under a street light he bought on Craigslist; he learned how to rewire its cord for a three-prong outlet. He took the fan from a UW bathroom and used it to refresh air, every 30 seconds, in his grow-tent.
“I became an amateur electrician-engineer-plumber-contractor. It was a really cool feeling for 18-year-old me,” he said.
Eventually, he was growing under 30 lights in a rented house in Seattle, for both the illegal and medical-marijuana markets.
“I call him ‘MacGyver,’” said Roberts, his aunt, about RT3’s ingenuity. She notes that his grandfather, a public-school teacher, was an avid inventor.
When voters approved Initiative 502, and legal pot, in November 2012, RT3 glimpsed the future. It wasn’t in Seattle, not with the city’s land-use restrictions and soaring real-estate values. And it wasn’t growing indoors, although that had been the preferred method under prohibition.
RT3 gathered family in the basement of his parents’ house.
He showed them a 32-page PowerPoint presentation.
His pitch: They should start a pot farm in Mason County – where less than 1 percent of the population is African American, but land is relatively inexpensive and not too far from consumers in Tacoma and Seattle.
To Hollingsworth, now 29, common sense dictated that pot farming’s future would be lit by the sun, which has encouraged photosynthesis for 4 billion years – for free.
RT3 also saw the market advantage he might enjoy for growing with mostly natural light and recycled water.
Indoor farming has a huge carbon footprint, according to a study by Evan Mills, a California scientist. Using intense lights and air-conditioning, the average indoor plant requires the energy equivalent of 70 gallons of oil, reported Mills.
But most shoppers in Washington haven’t been demanding environmentally sustainable weed. It doesn’t look as lustrous, although some believe marijuana’s key compounds are more fully expressed under sunlight.
“The uphill push will be consumer education,” RT3 said, “and it won’t be quick.”
‘We support each other’
His parents were apprehensive. “But we wanted to support Raft,” his father said. “I talked it over with my wife and she said, ‘no question, just do it.’”
Joy Hollingsworth, 32, had wanted to go into business with her brother, she said, ever since they had a lemonade stand together in the early 1990s at 23rd and John. The former Seattle Prep and University of Arizona star quit coaching and jumped into the new venture, where she manages curing and packaging as well as state-mandated tracking of every plant. “It might sound cheesy but nothing is better than being with family,” she said.
Roberts, her aunt, was eager to help. “My friends think it’s cool,” said Roberts, 69, who had been strategic planning director for Boeing. She hopes one day to manage a family foundation funded by the pot business that provides scholarships to city kids and helps patients get medical marijuana.
Trailblazing matriarch Dorothy, who also was the first black woman to earn a master’s in social work from the UW, asked just two questions about the business, according to Roberts: Is it legal? And, can you make money? She was glad to hear that some pot taxes went to public education, Roberts said.
It’s not the first time the family came together on a project. They rallied around Roberts’ idea in the late 1990s to remodel Dorothy’s home into a triplex. That allowed her to stay in the big house she and her husband bought in 1947, while also bringing income from the rental units.
The remodel had its challenges. Details changed. Costs increased. Questions arose. “And in the end we supported her because we support each other,” said Raft Jr.
Family members have had positive experiences with pot. RT3’s mom, Rhonda Hollingsworth, found it alleviated her pain after back surgery. Dorothy has used it to stimulate her appetite. Roberts’ husband, paralyzed by a surgical mishap, has been able to replace three prescription medications with salves and oils made with marijuana.
Still, the THC team struggles every day against their silent enemy – moisture. Botrytis cinerea, known as gray mold or bud rot, has ruined about 15 percent of their harvest, RT3 said.
“That’s the game. How to battle humidity in Western Washington,” he said.
Now that days are short and cold, THC has scaled back growing to about 40 percent of the summer plantings. RT3 supplements decreasing sunlight with electrical light. He also uses propane heaters to warm the greenhouses.
“So that’s not a panacea,” Mills wrote recently of greenhouse energy consumption.
Still, RT3 said their electricity bills run about $8 per day in the summer. If they relied only on artificial light he estimates the daily cost would top $650.
Like other Washington pot farms, THC must also deal with dropping prices. “We average what everyone else does, $3 a gram,” RT3 said. And even when all goes according to plan, THC still must contend with the whims of consumers.
“Our menu now has 12 strains,” he said. “Gorilla Glue #4 is popular now. Last year it was Strawberry Cough. How do you predict this?”
He’s grateful for his family’s patience. “Everything we’ve earned we put back in. We’re in this long-term,” said RT3, who sleeps on a pullout sofa in his office; the family has put two small trailers on the property if others need to crash at the farm.
“I can’t emphasize enough this is Raft’s,” said his father. “He works hard and is smart. It’s what he always wanted to do, so we support it.”