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Pot-fueled prosperity in hydroponic gardening


As plastic bottles shuttle along humming conveyor belts in General Hydroponics' vast Sebastopol factory, a row of nozzles fills the bottles with a bright pink liquid.

The production of this proprietary mixture of phosphates, sulfates and potassium is being fueled by the popularity of growing plants indoors.

Once an industry focused on orchids, roses and tomatoes, hydroponics is now being propelled into mainstream business by marijuana.

"I used to be put off by seeing the work I did always show up in marijuana-focused stores," said General Hydroponics founder Lawrence Brooke, a scientist-turned-entrepreneur who has been developing fertilizers and water-pump systems since the 1970s.

But today, as business booms, he acknowledges the revolutionary influence of soil-free growing methods.

"People who grow medicinal cannabis know it's the most powerful tool," Brooke said. "Farmers ought to be paying attention."

He is among a cadre of business owners and gardeners who have brought Sonoma County to the forefront of a national surge in indoor farming.

More than two dozen local stores with names like Gonzo Grow in Santa Rosa, House of Hydro in Petaluma and Revolution Hydroponics in Sonoma have opened, many during the past five years.

"God knows, we've seen them pop up everywhere," said real estate agent Barry Palma, senior vice president at Cornish and Carey Commercial.

That boom is fueled by a steady hum of water pumps bringing nourishment to an unknown number of marijuana plants under an untold number of roofs.

"The vast majority (of hydroponic retailers) are doing business legally, but they're capitalizing on an illegal market," said Santa Rosa Police Sgt. Mike Tosti, who runs the department's narcotics unit.

Hydroponic gardening was developed as a way to get nutrients directly to plant roots.

The English philosopher and scientist Francis Bacon first published a study on such methods in the 17th century. A UC Berkeley scientist coined the term hydroponics in 1937.

The method avoids the soil that breaks down nutrients into elements plants can absorb. With hydroponic methods, the roots come in direct contact with nutrient solutions they can absorb.

Plants sit in pots of pebbles or shallow plastic bins. A constant stream of water delivers air and carefully crafted mixtures of elements plants need to thrive.

Plants are less hampered by pests. Water can be recycled.

"They just suck it up directly, optimizing the plant's diet, which optimizes growth," said Bob LaGasse, executive director of the Progressive Gardening Trade Association based in Manassas, Va.

He traces the beginning of the decade-long surge in alternative gardening techniques such as hydroponics to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, which drove many people to start growing their own food.

Organic and local food movements further bolstered the technique's popularity, as has high unemployment.

However, none of those factors has generated as much interest in growing plants indoors as marijuana.

"The activities of the medical marijuana industry have overshadowed the progressive gardening aspect," LaGasse said. "And a lot of single-purpose shops did open."

California led the way with the Compassionate Use Act of 1996, and 15 states have since passed medical-marijuana laws.

The recent referendum to legalize pot, Proposition 19, drove many entrepreneurs to open businesses ancillary to marijuana production, particularly after several polls showed significant percentages of California voters supported legalization, said David Solotky, General Hydroponics' chief financial officer.

Proposition 19 didn't get enough votes statewide and failed, though it was favored in Sonoma County.

Many owners lacked business savvy and failed within a short time of opening, Solotky said. Stores opened up, sometimes several within blocks in a neighborhood.

A glut of shops drove prices down.

"They thought they were in an easy business, but the opposite is true," Solotky said. "It's a very competitive business."

Alisha Alton and her partners opened Elite Hydro Garden Supply on Old Redwood Highway in Cotati about six years ago.

Since then, she's watched people rent a storefront and throw up a shingle with hydroponic in the name and, almost as quickly as they open, fail and shutter.

"It's not as easy as people think it is," Alton said.

Still, customers keep coming and several stores have expanded to two or three locations within the county.

Hydroponics retailers appear to be a rare breed of business that is expanding in a troubled economy. But the county hasn't yet taken a close look at how much money is being made, said Ben Stone, director of the Sonoma County Economic Development Board.

"It's hard to track because there's no government number of it, no classification," Stone said. "It seems to be a sector that's more than weathering the storm."

Many shops keep stacks of glossy trade magazines and brochures for conventions in Las Vegas and Long Beach focused on hydroponics.

Flip to the back of Canada's Maximum Yield magazine, and California takes up five pages in a directory of hydroponic distributors nationwide. Santa Rosa's nine shops are second in number only to San Diego's 12.

If design is any indication, the industry appears to be have moved beyond its hippie roots.

A Maximum Yield spinoff lifestyle publication features a bikini-clad woman and a motorcycle on the cover.

Though full of psychedelic graphics, there isn't a pot-leaf image to be found in industry publication pages.

Brooke said he has a long-established policy to not focus advertising on a specific crop, including marijuana.

An informal survey of Sonoma County shopkeepers showed many agree.

Alton, of Cotati's Elite Hydro Garden Supply, said many of her customers probably shop at her store for supplies to grow marijuana, but she's instructed her staff to avoid the subject.

"A lot of them are probably doing medical but I try to respect their privacy," said Alton. "We don't talk about it directly."

As long as state and federal laws conflict regarding marijuana, marijuana production will remain a delicate subject.

Many Sonoma County hydroponics shop owners declined to even talk generally about the industry.

"It's somewhat of a discreet business," a Sebastopol retailer said.

Detectives do get tips "that some of the hydroponic stores are involved in other illegal activities," said Tosti, the Santa Rosa police sergeant.

He declined to comment on whether any shop owners are under investigation and Sonoma County District Attorney spokesman Christine Cook said her office isn't handling any cases linked to hydroponics stores.

"I don't think the majority have illegal sales going on the back door," Tosti said. "But they are benefiting from medical marijuana, or at least the guise of medical marijuana."

You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 521-5220 or julie.johnson@pressdemocrat.com.