JACKSONVILLE — For years, Jane Fossen’s work has been based on a relatively simple arrangement: Medical marijuana patients ask her to grow for them, and she does.

It allows Fossen to earn enough to support what she describes as a modest life in the Applegate Valley, the quiet southern Oregon community where she was born and raised.

But change is coming. Fossen is already testing out Oregon’s recreational cannabis market. She recently bought her first smart phone. She consults a business lawyer at a Portland law firm and packs her premium flowers, strains such as Skywalker OG and Peachy Pineapple, into trendy nitrogen-sealed tins so they keep longer on store shelves.

One year after Oregonians voted to legalize recreational marijuana, the landscape has shifted dramatically in rural southern Oregon, center stage for the state’s outdoor marijuana economy. The number of large-scale medical marijuana grow sites has skyrocketed in Josephine and Jackson counties in the past year, far outpacing the rest of the state, an analysis by The Oregonian/OregonLive shows.

Oregon is home to almost 600 grow sites that serve 11 or more medical marijuana patients each, more than double the number registered last year, the analysis shows. More than half are in Josephine and Jackson counties. Combined, the region’s large grow sites spiked from 124 last year to 311 this year.

Many of the region’s outdoor growers have hustled to plant the hottest strains to supply dispensaries in Portland, where marijuana grown indoors has traditionally dominated the market. It’s a major and, at times, unsettling transformation for people such as Fossen, 53, who makes the 4½-hour drive to Portland so often that she has a favorite organic vegan deli on the city’s east side.

“I am a farmer,” said Fossen, who tends 40 cannabis plants.

Many are daunted by the transition from a medical marijuana system where they generally have been left alone to one where bureaucrats intend to crack down on black-market production by tracking cannabis from seed to sale. Under new rules, even some operations that grow only for the medical market will be subject to state oversight starting next year.

Growers, many of whom have come to see marijuana as the mainstay of their family farms, wonder how they will adapt to rules for security, lab testing and licensing fees. Law enforcement statistics underscore the resistance among some growers to shift away from the illicit market. A regional drug unit overseen by Medford police has seized almost 250 pounds of marijuana headed into the black market this year and the outdoor harvest isn’t over.

“It’s still probably close to 50-50, where 50 percent are super frustrated with where it’s going,” said Michael Monarch, CEO of Green Valley Wellness, a Talent dispensary, who has been growing medical marijuana in the region since 2008. “They want the old-school, ‘Just leave me alone, I’ve had this going for 18 years, I have a relationship with patients, get off my back.’

“And the others are super excited about the birth of an industry.”

A pot breadbasket

Monarch, 42, moved to Ashland from California 15 years ago, drawn by the lower cost of living and better quality of life. At first he worked in real estate, but when the housing market collapsed in 2008, he had to look for other work. Two trends stood out: the thriving black market for marijuana and growing political momentum for legalization.

“I said, ‘Wow, this is coming. How can I be involved on the ground floor?’ “

And where better to enter the marijuana market than southern Oregon, where the state’s longtime medical marijuana program and prime growing conditions have transformed the region into a national epicenter of outdoor production.

Jackson and Josephine counties, largely rural, sit along the California border and vote Republican. On Measure 91, they were split, with larger Jackson County voting for it and Josephine against. Josephine, where voters have repeatedly rejected tax increases to pay for law enforcement, is home to more large-scale marijuana grow sites than anywhere in Oregon.

For growers, a long growing season extending into fall is a prime attraction.

“The region is so spectacular for the amount of days of sun we get, the lack of heavy rains when the buds are swollen,” said Monarch, who manages a large marijuana collective outside Ashland.

On a recent morning, about 100 towered under breathtaking vistas of the Cascade and Siskiyou mountains. Plastic netting helped keep flower-laden branches from drooping too low.

Unlike Willamette Valley growers who fine-tune warehouse conditions to pump a regular supply of flowers into the market, outdoor producers such as Monarch typically get one shot at harvest each year. They plant in the spring and harvest in fall, a period known locally as “croptober.”

Taking down plants and preparing the crop for market is tedious, time-consuming work carried out by seasonal workers who flood southern Oregon each year. Though growers have increasingly turned to machines to trim small leaves off large batches of flowers, many still rely on manual labor. Trimmers generally earn $15 to $20 an hour, sometimes more if they’re fast and efficient. Others are paid by weight, earning $150 to $200 for every pound of flowers they trim. Some growers,  such as Monarch, throw in a bonus if harvest season goes well.

“It’s very lucrative”

Monarch worked one recent morning alongside two veteran trimmers, Lauren Silberman, 29, and Solus Matthew, 40, carefully cutting branches off a giant plant. They worked efficiently, filling 18- and 30-gallon tubs with long stems weighted with flowers.

Silberman, a classically trained clarinetist with a graduate degree from the University of Oregon, has worked as a trimmer for five years, using the money she makes to help cover living expenses and pay for international travel. “It’s very lucrative,” she said, “and a great way to supplement my income.”

The Real Dope

Having trouble keeping up with all the developments as Oregon wades deeper into legal marijuana?

Not all of Monarch’s plants are flush with flowers. A few are relatively small. Their leaves are speckled brown and yellow, telltale signs of a devastating mite infestation that has swept through southern Oregon’s cannabis crop this year. The mites, Monarch and others say, are fallout from efforts by local growers to plant sought-after strains, such as Girl Scout Cookies and Chemdawg. Growers this year traveled to Portland and elsewhere to get starter plants from dispensaries or from other growers.

Monarch said cosumers’ increased sophistication has pressured growers to pay closer attention to the market and adapt. “It has created demand for certain genetics,” he said, “and those genetics have brought in pests.”

The mites, whose extensive damage isn’t obvious until flowers start to form, spread quickly from plant to plant and among grow sites, growers said. Monarch said he took an organic approach to dealing with the mites. But growers said pesticide use probably spiked this year. They also estimated mite damage will lead to a significantly lower yield this fall.

“I have never seen anything as devastating as what we have seen this year,” said Brent Kenyon, a longtime Medford grower who owns a chain of medical marijuana clinics and three dispensaries. “It’s been our biggest challenge yet.”

A hard sell

While it’s clear that southern Oregon’s outdoor growers have ramped up production, how much of this year’s crop will end up in dispensaries remains unknown.

The state won’t start tracking marijuana headed for the recreational market until next year. And the Oregon Health Authority, which regulates medical marijuana, doesn’t monitor marijuana production.

In the Portland-area market, marijuana grown outdoors can be a tough sell.

Shane McKee, a longtime medical marijuana grower who owns a chain of Portland-area dispensaries, said he has fielded calls from at least 10 outdoor growers in the past week. Each hoped to sell a newly harvested crop in his shops. He has declined them all, opting instead to sell only marijuana grown in warehouses and large commercial spaces.

The decision is strictly business. Portland consumers, whose decisions are influenced largely by smell, appearance and potency, prefer pot grown indoors. Indoor flowers tend to sparkle with resin more than their outdoor counterparts, which McKee said have a distinctive smell and often appear scruffier.

“I would say 95 percent or more of people in a blind study, they are going to pick an indoor product,” he said.

A survey of dispensaries last year by the Oregon Liquor Control Commission, the agency that will oversee regulated marijuana, found 16 percent of products sold in the state’s marijuana shops came from outdoor producers. In Portland, home to the largest concentration of marijuana shops, the percentage ranged from 12 to 15 percent.

Outdoor growers, faced with regulation and supplying the picky Portland market, are paying attention. “When people are shipping cannabis all over the country, they are not so concerned with how good it’s trimmed, compared to now where you have a retail market and consumers who are looking over every single flower,” Kenyon said.

Consumers, informed by popular web sites that offer strain reviews, are savvier, too. More often they know what strains should taste and smell like and reject products that disappoint.

“They want Dog Walker, they want Chemdawg or OG Kush,” Monarch said, referring to popular strains. “You can’t just call it that anymore. They know if it is.”

Seeing a distinction

Fossen, the Applegate Valley grower, knows Portland consumers favor pot grown inside. But she dismisses it as “Barbie weed.”

“It all has a specific look,” Fossen said. “It all looks similar to each other, whereas marijuana grown outside, under the moon and the sun and in wind and rain, it changes.”

She said some Portland shops won’t even make an appointment to see her once they hear she has outdoor product to sell.

Jane Fossen, a longtime medical marijuana grower outside of Jacksonville, worries that state regulation will squeeze out smaller growers in southern Oregon, where the marijuana crop is prolific and grown outdoors.  

Fossen, a soft-spoken woman with hair to her waist, has grown marijuana for more than a decade at her place deep in the woods outside Jacksonville. Tibetan prayer flags hang over the rustic fireplace in the small wooden house her father built. Her product labels feature hand-drawn images of mountains. She insists on a sense of calm and purpose among the handful of people she pays to trim.

“I don’t allow people to talk about ‘Fox News’ at the trim table,” she said. “You are creating this so it can go out and heal people. You don’t instill it with negativity and fear.”

Asked if she has ever sold her marijuana on the black market, Fossen politely demurred. “I will plead the Fifth.”

Fossen, though a firm believer in marijuana’s medicinal properties, is trying out the recreational market. About a dozen dispensaries, including two in Portland, sell her flowers marketed under the brand “Applegate Jane.”

But southern Oregon growers worry the transition from a largely unregulated system to one with pages of requirements, some of them costly, will scare off growers without doing much to stamp out the black market.

“We are being potentially pushed out of our way of life by overregulation,” said Fossen, pointing out the annual $3,750 state licensing fee she would have to pay to grow recreational marijuana, as well as land-use and water-use requirements she’d have to meet.

“It’s threatening for those of us who have small gardens,” she said. “It’s quite possible that we will be run over by the larger grows and displaced.”

— Noelle Crombie

Mark Friesen of The Oregonian/OregonLive contributed to this story.

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