WAPATO, Wash. – Across central Washington's fruit bowl, farmers are buying vineyards, hoping to establish roots in the area and capitalize on the booming wine industry.
Authorities believe some of the buyers are living in Mexico and their vineyards are producing tens of thousands of illegal marijuana plants — a crop that could easily surpass grapes in value this year.
Law enforcement officials in the Yakima Valley already have converged on seven vineyards that had been converted to marijuana operations this summer. At least five had been recently purchased — the buyers are still being tracked — and one had been leased to pot growers by an unknowing owner.
Pot growers aren't just hiding their crops in national forests and random cornfields any more, said Washington State Patrol Sgt. Richard A. Beghtol.
"They are able to amass a huge amount of money and using that money to go out and buy land to do their marijuana cultivation," Beghtol said. "It's their big moneymaker."
The valley, home to acres of fruit orchards and hop fields, has long been recognized as an important pipeline in the drug trade with easy interstate access to Seattle, Portland and points east.
Crackdowns at the Canadian and Mexican borders have made it more difficult to ship marijuana into the United States, prompting dealers to establish U.S. growing operations.
A bust of more than 60,000 plants on the Yakama Indian Reservation in 2004, one of the biggest nationwide at the time, was traced to organized crime in Mexico and valued at more than $35 million.
By 2006, authorities were seizing more than 144,000 marijuana plants across Washington state. That number more than doubled the following year to 296,611 plants, reflecting a rise in both drug activity and enforcement efforts, said Rene Rivera, the Drug Enforcement Agency's agent in charge in Yakima.
"This year, we're probably going to surpass 2007 easily, just given the way we're starting," Rivera said.
Water use is often a vital clue. Beghtol has noted that grape vines require much less water than marijuana, which needs daily irrigation.
Drug enforcement teams have confiscated approximately 110,000 marijuana plants valued at more than $100 million this spring and summer in the Yakima Valley alone, and they haven't even begun their annual aerial surveillance.
In 2006, grapes ranked No. 11 among Washington state crops with a value of $144.2 million. Vineyards cover about 31,000 acres.
Finding farmers willing to sell their property isn't difficult. Fewer farmers have children who want to take over the family business, and rising costs have driven many farmers off the land despite increasing prices for their crops.
But dealers aren't just limiting their property buys to older sellers, Beghtol said.
In one case, drug operatives approached a farmer who didn't have his farm listed for sale. He resisted until, asked to name a price. He threw out a figure: $263,000 for 27 acres and no building. The buyer showed up a few days later and bought the property in cash, Beghtol said.
The seller had no idea the farm would become a marijuana operation.
"The Yakima Valley is a huge player. These are big operations that are difficult to track down," Beghtol said. "They use fictitious names, they put property in daughters', wives' names to conceal identity and try to thwart law enforcement from going forward with civil forfeiture."
There have been 22 arrests this year. Authorities expect that number to rise as aerial surveillance begins later this summer.
As arrests mount, vineyard purchases by marijuana growers will likely decline, predicts Vicky Scharlau, executive director of the Washington Association of Wine Grape Growers.
"I suspect after you've had numerous busts, somebody's future plan for growing pot in vineyards is going to be thwarted," she said.