Up on a Colorado mountainside, Rob Trotter grows marijuana with a goal of producing as little waste as possible. It’s not easy. Cannabis cultivation tends to be a wasteful industry with a fairly large carbon footprint. Colorado Public Radio’s environmental reporter Grace Hood joins On Something to talk about Rob’s quest to make weed sustainable.
Ann Marie: From Colorado Public Radio and PRX, this is On Something.
Ann Marie: Hi, Grace.
Grace Hood: Hey, there. So I want to play a game with you.
Ann Marie: This podcast is for fun and discovery, so yes.
Grace Hood: I thought it would help explain a little bit why this story matters.
Ann Marie: Okay.
Grace Hood:Let me play some sounds for you and you tell me which ones of the sounds you associate with weed.
Ann Marie: Okay. I mean, that one’s dead on. That’s a bong hit.
Grace Hood Yup. You got it. What about this sound?
Ann Marie: I love reggae.
Grace Hood: This is actually called Ganja Farmer.
Ann Marie: Okay. Both of these sounds have been hilariously on the nose.
Grace Hood: Okay, so let’s try this third sound. What do you associate this with?
Ann Marie: I don’t know. That sounds like some kind of machine running or like a fridge running or something.
Grace Hood: Very good guess. It’s actually the sound of electric lights.
Ann Marie: Ohhhhh. Okay.
Grace Hood: So this is how most legal weed is grown in Colorado and a lot of other states.
Ann Marie: Yeah, I’ve been to some of these places before where it’s like blindingly bright and there’s tons of machine sounds.
Grace Hood: It’s very noisy.
Ann Marie: Right.
Grace Hood: Here in Denver, 4% of the city’s electricity use goes to the lights and the whirring fans and the HVAC systems. All of that goes to power the city’s marijuana businesses.
Ann Marie: It’s not just Denver we’re talking about.
Grace Hood: That’s right. Yeah. It’s not just Denver. A study by New Frontier Data says that if you look at all of the energy that powers indoor grows across the country, you could power a city the size of Newark, New Jersey or Anaheim, California, and that energy use is expected to more than double in five years.
Ann Marie: Wow.
Grace Hood: This is how most weed is grown. It’s grown in doors. All of this is to mimic what actually happens out in nature where plants are grown under the sunlight. And it’s actually a problem for cities like Denver because they have 100 percent renewable energy goals, and you can imagine all this electricity coming from coal fired power plants.
Ann Marie: Yeah.
Grace Hood: That’s kind of a problem.
Ann Marie: Well, and also space is super finite here, right? So there’s nobody setting up beautiful outdoor cannabis farms in the middle of Denver. They’re all in warehouses or industrial spaces. Right?
Grace Hood: Absolutely.
Ann Marie: Okay.
Grace Hood: So the point here is that you, if you’re buying weed in Colorado or other legalized states, are part of the problem. This electric hum, the HVAC sounds, all of that is really what you should think of when you think of weed in 2019.
Ann Marie: Is there a way to grow weed without having this insane carbon footprint?
Grace Hood: There is. It’s actually one of the things that I’ve been thinking about. What does it look like to grow weed sustainably?
Ann Marie: Alright. You know what you’re talking about. You’re our environmental reporter here at Colorado Public Radio and you also cover energy a lot. So you’re going to take us to meet a person whose whole life is sustainable weed.
Grace Hood: That’s right.
Ann Marie: This is On Something, stories about life after legalization. I’m Ann Marie Awad. On this podcast we talk about weed and how it figures into the rest of our lives on this increasingly toasty planet.
Ann Marie: So Grace went on this little road trip to talk to a guy who is trying to grow weed sustainably and fix this problem with weed being a little greedy when it comes to energy consumption. We sent you two and a half hours west of Denver over the Continental Divide, past a little town called Gypsum.
Grace Hood: Wow. It doesn’t get much more Colorado than this. We’re on a gravel road. We just drove past a ranch where this rancher had a little mini pickup and he had … it looked like a border collie or something on the flat bed of his truck. It’s just so green right now. I mean, I’m looking at really green pastures.
Ann Marie: Oh, I love that part of Colorado. So you drove down this dirt road for miles and there were ranchers.
Grace Hood: Yup, and people living in dilapidated log cabins.
Ann Marie: Right, and farmers and, well, one weed farmer.
Grace Hood: So we’re looking for mile marker 11.
Ann Marie: And up there in the mountains just after Mile Marker 11 you meet Rob Trotter.
Grace Hood: Yeah. There’s this ranch gate with a sign that says T&T. It stands for Trotter and Trotter. Rob and his late father.
Grace Hood: Are you Rob?
Rob Trotter: I am.
Grace Hood: Nice to meet you.
Rob Trotter: Nice to meet you too. It wasn’t going to rain today, they said.
Grace Hood: Pleasure.
Rob Trotter: Pleasure to meet you, too. Absolutely.
Ann Marie: What kind of a guy is Rob Trotter?
Grace Hood: He’s pretty spry. He’s pretty thin, tan, kind of gray, salt and pepper hair that’s a little bit long and hangs under his baseball cap.
Ann Marie: So this is the home of Pot Zero. That’s the name of Rob’s operation, and it’s also the name of a brand of weed that we can find in some dispensaries here in Colorado. And he’s been growing weed for five years up there.
Grace Hood: Five years, but it’s been 27 years since Rob bought this operation with his dad. And it’s really changed, like there used to be just a few dilapidated structures on the property and now he’s got a home, a couple other structures and the marijuana grow.
Ann Marie: So, okay, tell me what that marijuana grow looks like.
Grace Hood: Well to get there, Ann, we actually had to get on an ATV.
Rob Trotter: I’m going to let one of you guys drive too, because I drive a little crooked.
Grace Hood: I drove by the way.
Grace Hood: Okay. Everyone … Oh my God, this is so much fun.
Grace Hood: We drive up, it’s muddy and rocky. You get to the top of the hill and you just see this fenced in area.
Rob Trotter: That’s great. Pull it down so it goes into park.
Grace Hood: Yeah.
Rob Trotter: And then turn the key off.
Grace Hood: All right.
Ann Marie: Okay. So you’ve arrived at the grow after what sounds like a very fun journey. How big is this place?
Grace Hood: It’s like two acres. When we got there, it looked like an empty field. There were maybe a couple of plant stalks just poking out of the field. They hadn’t done any planting yet this year.
Ann Marie: Okay, so you were up there in May. That makes sense.
Grace Hood: We’re up there, and the first thing I really notice is all these little plants. They’re seedlings and they’re sitting out on these giant tables and behind the plants you actually notice these small shipping containers and that’s actually where Rob starts out the plants, as seedlings.
Rob Trotter: These are our seedlings that we brought out for the day.
Grace Hood: I mean, what’s this time of the year like? So what have these little guys …. I mean there’s dozens, hundreds of them.
Rob Trotter: There’s almost 10,000.
Grace Hood: And these little guys, their lives started when?
Rob Trotter: About four to six weeks ago, so some are bigger and some are smaller, but they’re within a few weeks of each other.
Grace Hood: Did they start in these little shipping containers here?
Rob Trotter: They started in the shipping containers and we start from seed. We kind of had to customize genetics to work for up here.
Grace Hood: So up on this mesa, Rob has kind of found like a little micro climate. It’s a warm pocket of air that it actually has similar temperatures and conditions to Afghanistan.
Ann Marie: Okay. That clicks, right? Because people out there, probably maybe some people out there have smoked Afghan Kush before and a lot of weed comes from Afghanistan. So weed’s been growing there for centuries.
Grace Hood: Yeah.
Ann Marie: It makes total sense.
Rob Trotter: We’re at 8,000 feet and we’re at a very similar latitude in terms of the amount of sunlight that you’re going to get at the same time of the year and so if it works in Afghanistan and those conditions, we thought it would work here.
Ann Marie: Okay, so what is it that makes this grow sustainable?
Grace Hood: Rob is really trying to be one with the landscape. I know that might sound a little wooey, but he’s lived on this land for so long. He doesn’t want to use pesticides. This is mostly an organic operation and for one example, that means keeping things like aphids off of his plants.
Ann Marie: As every gardener knows those aphids, those little bastards are little sap sucking bugs that can kill your plants. If you don’t get them first.
Rob Trotter: They’re here and we released several hundred thousand ladybugs and they really go after them.
Ann Marie: Get ’em, ladies.
Grace Hood: Ladybugs. How do they get here? Do they come on a shipment? Where do they come from?
Rob Trotter: Amazon Prime, two days.
Ann Marie: You want lady bugs, you got lady bugs.
Ann Marie: So aphids are a pest that indoor growers are probably not dealing with as much, right?
Grace Hood: Well, indoor grows, they do have some pests. It’s not a completely controlled environment, but it really does not hold a candle to being outdoors.
Ann Marie: Right.
Grace Hood: That’s where you have things like voles.
Ann Marie: Voles. That sounds like a creepy crawly.
Grace Hood: They’re actually these cute little tiny rodents. They can wreak havoc on Rob’s weed crop.
Ann Marie: Oh.
Grace Hood: He doesn’t use pesticides to kill them. He actually installed these little small underground fences. They’re three feet deep around his grow perimeter and he actually puts these owl boxes in the trees nearby. Owls build their nests there and they can take care of the voles.
Ann Marie: So there owls protecting this weed?
Grace Hood: Yes.
Ann Marie: That is pretty cool. It’s very Harry Potter.
Grace Hood: But no magic. He’s actually using nature to fight nature.
Ann Marie: Some would argue that’s magic.
Ann Marie: So what about the carbon footprint?
Grace Hood: We’re getting there. Let me take you next to this little stone shed. It’s right by the creek. It actually kind of looks like a big dog house. This is actually where Rob uses water to make power. It’s a renewable energy source.
Rob Trotter: We have no snow melt coming off of this mountain yet. This is nothing. What’s going to come once the heat comes is so much water, then I can put on more nozzles and make even more power.
Grace Hood: I mean, I just want to dwell on the fact that this is the single biggest overhead for most marijuana grows.
Rob Trotter: It is.
Grace Hood: Electricity.
Rob Trotter: It is number one.
Grace Hood: And you are, aside from your maintenance, you are paying what, sir?
Rob Trotter: Zero.
Ann Marie: Oh, okay. So I get it now. That’s where he gets the name Pot Zero, right?
Grace Hood: That’s exactly right. So zero electricity, next to no carbon footprint. I got to say Rob’s pretty unusual here in Colorado. Not only for the fact that he grows outdoors, but also for the fact that he supplies his own electricity.
Ann Marie: What about those pot farms that I hear about in California? Those are outdoors, right?
Grace Hood: You’re exactly right. So say for example, if you went to the Emerald Triangle in northern California, they’ve really been growing outdoors sustainably for decades, whether it’s legal or illegal pot. So it’s not unheard of to have a low carbon grow elsewhere in the country. But here’s the key thing, Ann. You can’t sell California pot in Colorado.
Ann Marie: Right, because of the federal law.
Grace Hood: That’s right. So here in this state, Rob’s pretty cutting edge.
Ann Marie: What’s grown here has to be sold here. So Rob’s grow doesn’t have much of a carbon footprint, unlike these other indoor grows in Denver. But what does even need that electricity for, right? Isn’t everything outside? He doesn’t need fans and lights and such.
Grace Hood: Well remember those little plant seedlings that I introduce you to? They were sitting on the table right when we walked into Rob’s grow operation.
Ann Marie: Yeah.
Grace Hood: He needs hundreds of hours of super expensive grow lamps to get these seedlings going. That’s not how other … For example, other outdoor grow operations in California may just use sunlight to get the plants going but Rob uses some electricity, and if you think about how a traditional indoor grow operates, they spend tens of thousands of dollars a month on getting plants to grow, and that’s simply what goes into their electricity bill.
Ann Marie: So I’ve never seen what a hydro power plant looks like. I mean, is this easy? Is this something anybody can do?
Grace Hood: I don’t understand all the particulars, but I will tell you, this is a turbine that’s spun really fast and generates electricity based on water that falls down a very specific grade or slope down a mountain hillside. So-
Ann Marie: It already sounds way too hard for me.
Grace Hood: It’s pretty complicated. And Rob just happened to choose a very special place, a special property that enabled him to have this very efficient and power producing plant from hydro-power on his property.
Ann Marie: This guy is up in the mountains putting forth a lot of effort into growing sustainable weed. After a short break, we’re going to find out if all of this work has a payoff. Is he making money? Stay tuned.
Ann Marie: We’ve been getting to know Rob Trotter, a guy who basically eats, lives, and breathes sustainable weed. He’s trying to grow it as cleanly as he can with a teeny, tiniest carbon footprint, but there’s something really important to know about Rob and about how he’s able to do this work every day. And it’s actually something that started decades ago, way before we found him high up here in the mountains growing sustainable weed.
Ann Marie: Do you want to take it from here, Grace?
Grace Hood: So long before Rob moved to Colorado, he lived back in Wisconsin and he was working for the family company back there. They did packaging and he started to notice some problems with his eyes.
Rob Trotter: I was having struggle driving at night. Seeing the lines, the lights from other cars were really bothering me and it became very evident that there was an issue.
Grace Hood: What happened next, really threatened to take over Rob’s life and it still kind of hangs over the work that he does at Pot Zero.
Rob Trotter: I’d always had poor eyesight, as in very nearsighted, but not your retina diminishing.
Grace Hood: Rob actually found out that he has this rare genetic disorder and over the decades it’s caused about 85% blindness.
Ann Marie: Wow, 85?
Grace Hood: What does the world look like? What do you see right now looking out in the field? We’re sitting in a field.
Rob Trotter: I can see the hill on the other side.
Grace Hood: Is it all blurry?
Rob Trotter: It’s all blurry. I can see it’s a gray hill.
Grace Hood: Rob is such a nice guy. He still makes eye contact even though he can only see out of his peripheral vision.
Ann Marie: So Rob is essentially blind, right? Is that why he let you drive the ATV?
Grace Hood: That’s right.
Ann Marie: Aah.
Grace Hood: When he moved out to the property with his parents and his wife in the 90s, they bought this place, I think, really with his future needs in mind, knowing that he had this genetic disorder. I don’t think though he ever really imagined that he would be running a pot growing business.
Ann Marie: Of course. Who predicts something like that? But then recreational weed does become legal in Colorado, and then what?
Grace Hood: Rob goes to Denver one day to visit one of the city’s many indoor grow operations and he starts to get interested in doing his own thing.
Rob Trotter: So we were invited into this grow and it was lovely. They were doing a great job, no doubt about that. But it just kept pulsing through me that I have all the heat from the lights kind of in my face.
Grace Hood: And that’s really where Rob saw his opportunity.
Rob Trotter: Why inside? Why all this energy and why not outside? And so that’s where I got on this mission. Then the real question was, I’m not just outside but I’m at 8,200 feet, will it work up there?
Ann Marie: So he gets this idea, he spends thousands of dollars on seeds, plants it all in the ground, and then what?
Grace Hood: The first season he planted about a dozen strains of marijuana. The plants started to grow, things were looking good.
Rob Trotter: We were really excited because we knew we had a crop. We had buds.
Grace Hood: Looked promising.
Rob Trotter: Looked promising. Harvest is a very exciting time because you know all of your effort is now coming back as the bounty that makes the operation run.
Grace Hood: So we have a lot of excitement and that quickly fades to disappointment. Out of the 12 strains that Rob Trotter planted, just two panned out. There are Black Eyed Katy and Camel Walk Kush. Ann, I look that up after I got back to my desk, and those are also names of Phish songs.
Rob Trotter: If we would’ve not had those two strains, we’d have said, “Well, that didn’t work. Let’s close up shop. Experiment over.”
Grace Hood: But two did work.
Rob Trotter: Two did work.
Grace Hood: And those two strains actually taught Rob a lot about what he needed to build a successful outdoor grow operation up in the mountains. He got them both from the same cannabis seed bank, one that uses careful breeding, not genetically modified seeds or GMOs to make plants that can really thrive at high altitudes in Afghanistan or the Rocky Mountains.
Ann Marie: So I have to imagine that this guy Rob is a big old tree hugger.
Grace Hood: Okay. So here’s the really interesting thing. The environment does matter to Rob, but he’s also … I think first in his mind he’s an entrepreneur, so he’s a real go getter. He’s all about overcoming challenges, especially personal challenges.
Grace Hood: What’s it like running an agricultural business that’s very labor dependent and you have … your eyesight is impaired?
Rob Trotter: Make no mistakes, people that lose their eyesight have uncanny ways of figuring things out and it’s the rewiring that happens. I never knew all this until my eyesight left, but I can honestly say that there is a gift to it. The gift is that your imagination and your memory go way up. That helps a tremendous amount. It helps in the whole operation.
Ann Marie: It’s really hard for me to wrap my brain around how a guy can run a farm while he’s functionally blind.
Grace Hood: Well, I think it’s really two things. Rob relies on the people around him to provide support of different types, but the other thing is who he is as a person. He’s a really optimistic guy.
Rob Trotter: Once you’re stuck between that rock and a hard spot, you better figure it out quick. Once you hit the stop sign and where everybody else is saying, “Well, I don’t know what to do next”, my brain is wired to go back up, turn right, get around the stop sign one way or another. And there’s always a way. I kind of have this philosophy that there’s no such thing as a problem. There’s just solutions waiting to happen.
Grace Hood: Wow. I’m going to write that and put that on my wall or my desk cubicle.
Rob Trotter: It’s a positive mindset.
Ann Marie: Okay, so let’s get to this big question that I’m sure some folks are wondering. He’s green, but is he making green? Is he turning a profit? It’s got to cost a lot of money to grow this stuff sustainably and up in the mountains too.
Grace Hood: Yeah, I mean, let’s face it, it’s hard. Since Rob started his grow, the price of pot in Colorado has really dropped.
Ann Marie: Pot, like actual just weed, weed is so stupid cheap now.
Grace Hood: It is, and Rob’s been in business for five years. He thinks he might actually break even in 2019. I mean, this year it is such a critical point for his business.
Ann Marie: Okay, so people care about where their wine comes from. People care about where their whiskey comes from, their coffee beans. Do people care about where their weed comes from? I mean, who’s buying this?
Grace Hood: Rob seems to think so. He didn’t use these words, but I really liken it to artisanal weed.
Ann Marie: It’s artisanal.
Grace Hood: Artisanal. What’s really interesting to me is these parallels, a parallel between Rob’s pot growing business and the industry in Colorado. I mean, both have really gone from these crazy farfetched ideas to something that really does truly seem to be going somewhere.
Ann Marie: An industry.
Grace Hood: An industry.
Ann Marie: A capital “I” industry.
Grace Hood: Yeah. I asked Rob about whether his business is going to stand the test of time. He actually answered me with this story. So I mentioned he moved out into Colorado with his parents. He actually moved up from Wisconsin and in the early years of his pot business, Rob said his dad, of Trotter & Trotter ranch, was always kind of skeptical of what he was doing there. Then he remembers bringing his dad out to his pot fields and walking him around last September.
Rob Trotter: We got a lot of dollars on the line that we’ve saved over our lifetime. We’ve also used up five years of our life. Okay? When you’re doing something, it’d better work when you’re that far invested, right? And he was worried about it and I walked him around that plantation few days before he died, and damn it, I didn’t get a picture. That was so stupid, but I didn’t know he was going … Okay.
Rob Trotter: And he looked at me and he’s a smart guy, self-made, built his own thing. He looked at me and said, “You’re going to make it, aren’t you?” And I said, “Yeah, we are.” I said, “I have no doubt in my mind.” And he could see just by what it looked like compared to the years before that we have now got something. So he was, he was all in.
Grace Hood: When did he pass?
Rob Trotter: Just this last fall.
Grace Hood: This last fall?
Rob Trotter: Yeah. Yup, Yup. Yup.
Grace Hood: I got to ask, how did that feel for you? I mean we all seek the approval of our parents, right?
Rob Trotter: It felt great. That was just a great moment. Now we carry on because this thing, it’s got legs and you just got to keep making it go.
Grace Hood: Rob Trotter has fought voles, aphids, all with a pretty significant visual impairment and this year he’s going to go up against his biggest challenge yet.
Ann Marie: Oh boy.
Grace Hood: The local planning board. Rob’s trying to convince local bureaucrats to allow him to expand his operation from two acres to 40 acres.
Ann Marie: 40 acres? 40 acres for weed?
Grace Hood: Yeah. 40 acres seems like a lot. There are certainly bigger outdoor grows that can really challenge Rob Trotter, and there’s all about economies of scale.
Ann Marie: Right.
Grace Hood: So Rob is really trying to scale up. I mean, there’s a really big outdoor grow in Pueblo in southern Colorado, but the key thing is that Rob thinks the future of weed is outdoors, not indoors.
Rob Trotter: Interestingly indoor grows don’t have scale. They’re done.
Grace Hood: Because they can’t-
Rob Trotter: They’d have to build a bigger building. They really don’t have scale.
Grace Hood: So they’re like a dinosaur.
Rob Trotter: They have no scalability. You build a 10,000 square foot or a 20,000 or a hundred, you might think you got the monster, but when 40 acres comes online, I’m going to make it look puny.
Ann Marie: Oh. Damn.
Grace Hood: Mic drop. Boom.
Ann Marie: So Rob Trotter sounds like he’s pretty confident that he’s got a winning strategy here, but I’m going to play devil’s advocate for a moment. He may put those indoor grows out of business with his 40 acres, but how is he going to compete with huge agribusinesses that might come along with 400 acres, right? What’s the plan then?
Grace Hood: Well, I think it really goes back to something we said earlier. Rob sees himself as an artisanal grower. He doesn’t really see those as his main competition. So he’s focused on growing a large amount of very high quality artesanal weed.
Ann Marie: Right, like the wine industry or all the fancy single origin coffee I buy. He’s hoping there’s going to be customers who are going to pay a premium for the good stuff. Right?
Grace Hood: Exactly. And we just described Rob’s experiment, but I also described a large grow operation in Pueblo in southern Colorado.
Ann Marie: That’s right.
Grace Hood: They’re growing a lot of weed with less electricity, and here’s the really interesting thing. I think it’s very much an open question in, say, 10 or 20 or 30 years when weed, say, is legal at the federal level and it can be sold across state lines. It can move across state lines. Weed grown in California can be sold in Colorado.
Ann Marie: Well, it’s kind of like our food, right?
Grace Hood: Exactly.
Ann Marie: I mean, most times that I’m buying strawberries at the grocery store, they’re grown in California, right?
Grace Hood: They’re not grown in Colorado. At that point, I think that growing weed indoors, my sense is that you can make the argument it’s not financially viable. Weed may need to move outdoors at that point.
Grace Hood: So whether or not it can be grown outdoors with a zero carbon footprint, my sense is that that’s still going to be a niche thing. But I think it really depends on where you are in the country. If you’re in the climate where you can grow all year round, maybe you don’t need lamps, like what Rob uses up in the mountains to start his little seedlings.
Grace Hood: There’s so many different variables there, but ultimately we really will know more, I think, when Rob scales up to 40 acres and starts to really kick off the next phase of his business.
Ann Marie: All right, well we’ll wait and see. Thanks, Grace, for taking a road trip for us. Thanks.
Ann Marie: That was Colorado Public Radio reporter Grace Hood.
Grace Hood: On Something is a labor of love reported and written by Ann Marie Awad and me. I’m Grace Hood.
Ann Marie: Produced and mixed by Brad Turner, Rebecca Romberg and John Pinnow. Our editor is Curtis Fox.
Grace Hood: Music by the extraordinary Brad Turner and Daniel Mescher. Our executive producers are Rachel Estabrook and Kevin Dale.
Ann Marie: On Something is made possible by lots of people like Francie Swidler, Kim Nguyen, Dave Burdick, Alison Borden and Matt Herz.
Grace Hood: If you like what you’re hearing, talk to us on social media. We’re @onsomethingpod on Twitter and Instagram. You can also join the cool kids club and get our On Something newsletter. You can sign up at onsomething.org.
Ann Marie: This program is made possible in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a private corporation funded by the American people. This podcast is also made possible by Colorado Public Radio members. Learn about supporting Colorado Public Radio at cpr.org.
Ann Marie: Can we bring in the Harry Potter Music over here?