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FAIRBANKS — Hundreds of marijuana plants sat flowering under bright lights in a former big rig garage with Nirvana echoing from stereo speakers.
“Do the plants prefer grunge music?”
Branden Roybal, owner of Alaska Cannabis Cultivators, chuckled. No, the music was for his employees watering and tending the crop.
Roybal, who has about 1,000 plants, is one of about 15 active marijuana growers in the Fairbanks area, which has carved out a niche as Alaska’s hub for legal pot cultivation.
State tax records show that nearly half of all marijuana bud, flower and trim sold legally in Alaska through April was grown in the Fairbanks North Star Borough, which also boasts nearly half of Alaska’s taxpaying cannabis cultivators.
So far, growers in Fairbanks have cultivated and sold about 800 pounds of marijuana and paid $444,000 to the state in taxes, records show.
Statewide, 1,640 pounds of marijuana has been cultivated and sold by 33 growers, who have collectively paid almost $1 million to the Alaska Department of Revenue, according to the department’s tax division.
In April, 10 Fairbanks area growers who sold marijuana to retailers and manufacturers paid taxes to the state. The next-largest number of growers to pay taxes in April from any other Alaska city was two. Growers pay no local taxes.
Fairbanks is “way ahead” of other Alaska communities, said Cary Carrigan, spokesman for the Alaska Marijuana Industry Association, with some of the biggest grows, the friendliest local regulations and the best-organized marijuana industry operators.
“Fairbanks has really set the standard,” he said.
Growing a new industry
Roybal cashed in his life savings and gave up a lucrative career as a contractor to grow marijuana in an old truck shop that he is renting in South Fairbanks.
He received his final state approval and the OK to start growing in November — about two years after Alaska voters approved a statewide ballot measure that paved the way for the new industry.
“It’s been a learning experience,” Roybal said. “Growing 1,000 plants is a lot different than growing 12 plants. All of the problems get amplified.”
Roybal taught himself to grow pot by reading books and through trial and error. He is growing multiple strains, including varieties known as Snow White, Blueberry and Sour Diesel. He uses about 1,000 gallons of water a day.
“I think we are Water Wagon’s best customer right now,” he said.
Electricity is Roybal’s highest cost. He ran the business by himself for the first few months and has since hired seven full-time employees.
An unexpected benefit of becoming a cannabis cultivator is that the bright lights helped stave off the winter blues, he said.
Roybal is rotating his crop so that he has a harvest every week and a steady income. Almost all of the marijuana he grows remains in Fairbanks, he said.
He is planning to triple his grow while also, in the building next door, he is starting another much-larger more automated grow with a business partner.
Demand for marijuana across Alaska remains high. Roybal gets calls regularly from retailers looking for product.
“There is demand everywhere,” he said. “All of the stores can’t even keep full hours. The demand is higher than most people expected. It’s great.”
Rosie Creek Farm is also expanding, while marketing its particular kind of “sun grown” bud.
“This will be a huge year for us,” owner Mike Emers said.
The farm is located down a nondescript driveway in a rural Parks Highway subdivision.
Last week, a handful of farm workers moved quickly to get small, potted marijuana plants into the ground. The crop is late due to cool weather.
Rosie Creek Farm was the first cultivator in Alaska to receive a state permit to grow marijuana. Emers doubled his number of employees from four to eight and has been busy branding the farm’s product.
Three joints come in a little red box that looks like a matchbox with the Rosie Creek Farm logo, a farm field baking under the sun.
Emers said he is trademarking the name Midnight Sun Grown and has put a lot of focus on packaging.
Federal law prohibits Emers from describing his marijuana as organic even though the marijuana plants get the same treatment as the farm’s certified organic vegetables.
“We are growing our marijuana with the same care that we treat our vegetables,” he said.
Emers is among the few Alaska cultivators who have opted to grow their crops outside.
“I am playing to my strengths,” he said. “I know how to farm.”
Brand loyalty is the goal, Emers said. He is continuing to cultivate vegetables.
“It’s not that you can’t make money on vegetables,” he said. “It’s that it’s hard to send the kids to college on that. The profit margin on growing vegetables up here is razor thin. I am looking forward to being a successful business rather than a struggling farmer.”
Friendly local regulations
Both Emers and Roybal said the borough helped marijuana growers in Fairbanks to be successful by adopting regulations early and by keeping them minimal.
“The borough has helped Fairbanks growers by allowing us to get our stuff on the market before anyone else,” Emers said. “I think it’s good for the economy.”
The availability of commercial and industrial properties where marijuana can be grown also helped, according to Brandon Emmett of the Alaska Marijuana Control Board.
In addition to about 15 taxpaying growers in the borough, dozens more have received land use permits from the borough to grow marijuana in the Fairbanks area.
Borough Mayor Karl Kassel said his goal after getting elected in 2015 was to make sure the borough stayed out of the industry’s way.
“I told our staff that I didn’t want to be the bottleneck to impede business development,” he said. “We are here to help business, not hurt it, regardless of what it is.”
Contact staff writer Amanda Bohman at 459-7587. Follow her on Twitter: @FDNMborough.