Oregon Public Broadcasting

Over the next few days we're looking at Washington's latest agricultural crop - legal marijuana and we've been introducing you to some of the personalities behind the scenes.

Today you're going to meet a couple of guys who've teamed up to embark on this Wild West adventure. One -- a straitlaced Eastern Washington farmer. The other, a video-gaming, techy.

Let's start with Tom Balotte . He's not a farmer. He doesn't smoke weed. But he does like to build things.

Asked if he used to tear things apart and rebuild them when he was a kid, he replied, "Well most of them I would tear them apart and then I'd lose the parts and never build them back up. But as I got older I found more and more parts to put my toys back together," Balotte said.

Balotte's other love -- gaming. Just look at his tattoos.

He explained, "This here is like the little sign of a video game, Oblivion, which is one of the Elder Scrolls games -- I'm a gamer."

A gamer -- and a mechanic. Balotte has no traditional training but he's a tinkerer and he's good at it. Alan Schreiber noticed that straight away when he met Balotte about a year ago.

Schreiber said, "He is very, very good at what he does."

Schreiber gave Balotte a job as a mechanic on his farm just north of Pasco in Washington. Schreiber says -- they just clicked.

"We do like new projects. We like trying new things and different things. And he'd come up with an idea, and I'd come up with an idea on doing this," he said.

Things really came together last winter, when they attended an agricultural conference in Portland. They were out for a few drinks after a long day of sessions when a light bulb went off.

They would team up and use Schreiber's farming expertise and Balotte's mechanical wizardry to dip into this new pot farming experiment.

They scratched a modified hydroponic-like plan on the back of a bar napkin. And the partnership was born.

They knew the state was limiting the amount of square footage for each grower. So why not hatch a contraption that would grow more marijuana per square foot? And Balotte says it's not just about pot.

Balotte said, "If you design and perfect a way to grow cannabis efficiently, than maybe you can move on to other things with the same system."

The prototype is a weird-looking machine about the size of a vintage Cadillac. It looks a bit like a massive Peruvian pan flute lying on its side. PVC tubes are all lined up with cutout holes facing up. Netted cups of sorts are placed in each of these openings on the top of the tubes.

Schreiber explained, "There would be one plant in each of these cups and there would be a nutrient bath that would come in and would go down over the roots. Eventually, the root ball would grow down to the bottom ..."

The grow-system was completed in the spring.

Right now it's gathering dust in a large greenhouse on the farm while the two collaborators wait for their pot-growing license from the state. There's a bit of a queue.

Nearly 2,500 applications are pending.

Schreiber is hopeful, "The state's moving pretty slow on the applications, it's probably going to take months. And so, we've kind of hit the pause button."

But they're ready to hit play as soon as the state let's them. And they have even more paper-napkin plans for how to alter this machine and make it produce even more pot, but that's "off the record."

While Scheiber is waiting he has plenty of other things to keep him occupied. The pot experiment appealed to him as he's an agricultural researcher as much as he's a farmer.

On his farm outside of Eltopia, he's growing over 300 types of crops from cherries, to white-fleshed watermelon, to purple-hued cauliflower.

Schreiber explained why he's willing to take on the hassle of the new crop, "If you want to know what Washington agriculture is going to be like in the next five to ten years from now, you can come to this farm and see it ... And cannabis is going to be another crop. And there is a tremendous need for research on, on cannabis."

Schreiber says if his farm is approved to grow pot he and Balotte will start building their growing systems by the drove - and improving the design as they learn more. Until then, he'll focus on this year's summer harvest while his partner-slash-mechanic Balotte ... well, he still has quite a few machines around the farm to fix.

This story originally appeared on Oregon Public Broadcasting.

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