This story first appeared in The Outsider, the premium outdoor newsletter by Jason Blevins.
MOFFAT — Erick Reichwald pulls his truck and camping trailer into the freshly graveled alley and hops out.
“Where’s my lot again?” he asks Mike Biggio.
Biggio, the co-owner of Moffat’s Area 420 cannabis business park — the largest commercial marijuana operation in the country — points his newest resident to a 1-acre parcel of sage and sand. Reichwald bought the lot two years ago and just arrived, ready to turn dirt and grow weed in the San Luis Valley.
He’s a modern-day gold miner, full of anticipation for a future of fortune.
“It does kinda feel like the old gold rush … this place is just fantastic,” Reichwald says. “They would have put me in jail for the rest of my life when I first started doing this and now look at this place.”
Biggio, who has been locked up for growing weed, shows Reichwald the owner’s badge strapped around his neck.
“This just came today. Twenty-two years in the making,” he says.
In 2000 Biggio had a grow house in Greenwood Village. He had about 30 people working for him and sold weed to buyers all over the metro area. He got raided by federal agents and spent eight years in prison.
“I get out and bam, weed is legal … but they had regulations that kicked all the felons out of the industry,” he says, glancing down at the state-stamped ID around his neck that came from the state’s social-equity program inside its marijuana enforcement division. “Now I am totally legit. Pretty cool.”
Biggio moved to Moffat in 2015. In 2018, he and investment partner Aspen developer Whitney Justice created a first-of-its-kind cannabis collective. They worked with the town board to annex 420 acres of their land for the Area 420 project and helped the town re-drill a well to provide a better flow of municipal water.
The project has 73 marijuana growers who have purchased lots on 100 acres in Area 420, each with water taps and wired for electricity. Biggio calls it the largest commercial cannabis operation in the world. A planned second phase, with its own private well, will make room for another possible 300 buyers.
The gravel alleys are lined with year-round greenhouses, which have black-out curtains to follow local dark-sky rules. Some are large sheds. Others are simply gardens, tended by owners in camping trailers and RVs. Others are compounds, with tall fences and guard dogs. Most of the growers live on site.
Biggio and Justice have acquired several 1930s-era train cars, with dining cabins and double-decker passenger cars they are outfitting for a dispensary and smoking lounge.
Biggio is proud of the residents and growers at Area 420. He calls them “the underdogs” and the “mom-and-pops.” He’s big on social equity and welcoming people who have been targets of the drug war. The couple in the air-conditioned grow facility own a pedi-cab business they run at large festivals. Another buyer just installed an $800,000 extraction machine that sucks oils from buds. Some have invested $2 million in their grows. Others are more modest. All of his buyers, he says, are independent operators who have come together at Area 420 to compete with corporations in the consolidating cannabis industry. They all meet monthly to discuss their business.
“We have all sorts of nationalities here. People from all over the country,” he says. “People want to play legally in this industry but not go head-to-head with multimillion-dollar conglomerates.”
Area 420 lots sell for $250,000 an acre and Biggio and Justice will finance buyers without a credit check. There are plans for solar arrays in the next phase, with grow operations beneath the panels. He offers growers at Area 420 use of a joint-rolling facility and soon he’ll have an extraction facility so Area 420 growers can make their own oils and waxes. He’s building Quonset hut-style housing for workers, visitors and local teachers.
Biggio says he’s been in touch with leaders in the U.S. Virgin Islands about how to set up an Area 420-type operation in St. Croix if the legislature there ever approves legal weed.
“We have a model that should be replicated,” he says. “Between our improvements and our buyers’ investment, we’ve put $30 million into year-round agriculture here.”
“We are not —absolutely not — changing our name.”
That’s a big deal for an agriculture-based economy that has not grown for more than a century. Moffat Trustee Ken Skoglund dug the roads and building sites at Area 420. His excavation company installed the water lines.
“Area 420 has been good to me and good for the town,” Skoglund says. “But this name change business, that’s changed things.”
While Moffat and Saguache County have largely embraced marijuana as the new face of agriculture in the region, Biggio’s push to rebrand the town of Moffat with a new name, Kush, has stirred ire. Where he once had relatively good relationships with locals, his Kush plan has left him a bit alienated.
After news broke that Biggio was pushing for a name change, residents started showing up at town board meetings. There were 40 people at the June meeting, Skoglund says, “more than I’ve ever seen.”
Skoglund says local veterans of the Afghanistan War do not want to live in a place called Kush after soldiering in the Hindu Kush mountain range. He says he’s heard from hundreds of people who may not live in the town boundary but have mailing addresses, drivers licenses, permits and certificates with the name Moffat. “No one is happy” about the proposed name change, Skoglund says.
“It affects too many people negatively and Kush has a lot of negative connotations to it,” he says. “Look, we are not trying to deny the economic value of marijuana in our town and we want to help support Mike and his business, but we are not — absolutely not — changing our name.”
Saguache County first began reporting retail marijuana sales in September of 2017. Sales grew to $5.1 million in 2021 from $1.9 million in 2018, according to state taxation reports.
But economic boosters in Saguache County have not necessarily seen spillover from Area 420 into local coffers, says local resident Melinda Myers, who is serving her third year as the executive director of the Saguache County Sustainable Environment and Economic Development.
“Other than raising my property taxes every time they sell an acre for $250,000 or whatever, I haven’t seen any real benefits,” Myers says.
Myers says her group’s focus is on “value-added agriculture,” with innovative farmers finding new products for new buyers. Like starches from potatoes, goat cheese and the fiber from hemp stalks.
Like Skoglund, she’s heard from locals who are troubled by the push to change the name of Moffat.
“It just feels disrespectful and everyone feels like they’ve been excluded from the process,” she says. “I’m looking forward to holding some meetings and doing some bridge building. We’ll have a cookout in the park and talk about how we can work together and set aside this name change business and talk about building a diverse economy that isn’t reliant on just one thing.”
Biggio is unfazed by the opposition. He said attendance at the town board’s July 5 meeting was only 15 people. (He says he’s attended every town board meeting for the past several years.)
“Opposition is starting to die out,” he says. “The town attorney laid out the process and it seems very straightforward. I believe we are still in the race.”
Biggio says he’s been calling the area the Kush region of the United States for years. The San Luis Valley is an alpine desert not unlike the valleys of the Hindu Kush in Afghanistan, where indica strains of cannabis grow in short seasons.
Most of his buyers are growing indica Kush strains, he says. His plan is to establish San Luis Valley Kush — from Kush, Colorado — with specific attributes, or terroirs, that come from the valley’s soil and water, or appellations. Those are terms used to define a geographic region and the wines and cheeses it produces.
“The whole idea behind this was to make that connection to the Kush region and brand this as its own unique region for those Afghan Kush-type varieties,” Biggio says. “So people when they think of Colorado and they think of Area 420 or the town of Kush, they know that this is kind of like what Napa Valley is doing. Like we’re champagne from a very specific region in France.”
Truman Bradley, the executive director of the state’s 12-year-old Marijuana Industry Group, says collective power is essential as Colorado’s marijuana industry “is at its breaking point.”
Marijuana sales are enduring the largest sustained decline since weed was legalized by state voters in 2012. Sales through the first four months of 2022 are $611.9 million, down 26% from the same span in 2021. Bradley said marijuana businesses are laying off workers. He says thousands have lost their jobs in recent weeks as the industry contracts.
“We definitely need to be huddling for warmth right now,” Bradley says. “I love the idea of establishing Colorado as a hub for ‘cannasseurs’ and that will take a collective effort. It’s incumbent upon the entire Colorado ecosystem right now — lawmakers, regulators, local governments, businesses and consumers – to consider if this is an industry worth keeping; if it’s something we all value. If so, the death by a thousand cuts has to stop. Increased regulation and taxes is threatening to kill the green goose.”
Moffat, a town that incorporated on April 20, 1911, was named after David Moffat, a railroad tycoon who spent his fortune building a railroad from Denver to Craig. The train tunnel beneath the Continental Divide that connects Boulder County to Winter Park was named after David Moffat. Moffat County in northwest Colorado, which was founded in February 1911, also was named after David Moffat.
(Biggio says the confusion between the county and town last year caused one of his growers to prematurely yank out an outdoor harvest when he saw a frost warning for the county. “The confusion is real,” Biggio says.)
The Town of Moffat boomed in the late 1800s and early 1900s, with as many as 2,500 residents. Narrow gauge railroads connected mines in the Sangre de Cristo mountains with larger railroads in Moffat. The town was a ranching hub, with rail lines moving cattle up and down the valley.
That agricultural heritage remains today, with about 110 residents — a population count that has not moved much for several decades — working largely in farming and ranching. There’s a Dollar General store in town and a coffee shop but little else. Biggio hopes peripheral businesses will start following the weed growers to Moffat.
He envisions the marijuana industry eventually including a tourist-based sector, with visitors touring different regions and sampling strains.
“Just like wine,” he says. “Where people take wine tours of different vineyards across the world. Why can’t this valley be one of those stops on a cannabis tour?”
Biggio says the great, great granddaughter of Moffat reached out last week and asked that he stop pushing for the name change. Biggio persuaded her to come out for a tour later this month. He’s planning to dedicate the train cars to Moffat.
“We want to keep his story going but we want to rebrand this place as Kush. We are pushing Kush because this is a brand new culture that is being developed,” he says, shortly after showing Reichwald his new home. “These guys, myself included, spent many years in the shadows. We couldn’t put things out there for the world to see. This is the first time we are able to join together in full daylight sanctioned by the state and we are building a whole new culture. This is our chance to stake our claim, just like the pioneers who came here with mining, cattle and railroads.”
This story first appeared in The Outsider, the premium outdoor newsletter by Jason Blevins. >> Subscribe