The Weed Growers Who Also Breed Falcons
The first thing I notice when I walk into Bethany and Justin Rondeaux’s house outside Port Angeles is a falcon wearing a hat in the living room.
Perched atop a stand that looks not unlike a cat tower is Sky, a 12-year-old saker falcon with brown and white feathers. He usually lives in his own coop outside, but on the morning of my visit, he is inside the house and has been made temporarily blind by the medieval- looking leather hood on his head.
The hood was hand-stitched by a man in Utah, and there are dozens more on a shelf in the couple’s kitchen, each one perfectly constructed to fit atop a raptor’s noggin. The purpose is to cover the bird’s eyes and obscure its vision. This calms them, like a baby swaddled in cotton.
Bethany and Justin Rondeaux are in two very different but oddly parallel businesses: falconry and cannabis. At this point, their boutique cannabis business, which they aptly named Falcanna, brings in more revenue than the birds do, but that could change. The couple has begun selling their birds to traders in the Persian Gulf, where falcon racing is a sport engaged in by some of the world’s richest men, including kings, princes, and sheikhs.
The men who buy these birds—and they are all men—drive Land Cruisers and Range Rovers (or take private planes or helicopters) into the Arabian Desert, where their birds are tested on speed and agility. The top falcons can fly more than 200 miles per hour, and the high- est ever paid for a falcon, Bethany tells me while we settle into a conference table in her living room, is $700,000.
The Rondeauxs’ birds go for significantly less. Still, at not even 30 years old, Bethany, along with her husband, Justin, has already owned several successful businesses, starting with the black-market weed the couple used to grow in an Airstream closet. They’ve made money, reinvested it, and then made more. In addition to breeding birds that are among the most prized in the world, the Rondeauxs grow some of the finest weed in Washington State.
The Rondeaux homestead is unassuming from the outside. Perched beside a rural highway on the northern part of the Olympic Peninsula, it looks from the road like a half-finished construction site. When I pull up, there is an RV parked outside an old A-frame in the middle of being remodeled, and cars and trucks are parked haphazardly in the dirt. A bearded man pops his head out of the RV and directs me next door, to a neat-looking house where Justin and Bethany live. She later explains that the man in the RV is a former naturopath from Seattle who moved out here to care for their 70 falcons and hawks.
Bethany is 28 years old but looks even younger. She’s got long, fine hair, delicate features, and no trace of makeup on. In the photos on her Instagram page, she occasionally poses in ball gowns in the nearby Hoh Rain Forest, the thousand-year-old trees dripping with moss and cannabis smoke curling out of her mouth. But today she’s wearing a flannel shirt, jeans, and slippers.
Her husband, who joins us shortly after I arrive, is 34 years old, with dark brown hair, a shaggy beard, and ears that stick out from his head. When he’s by the bright kitchen windows, the light seems to beam right through them.
“I always say—and this is totally true—Bethany saved me from a life of mediocrity,” Justin says. “It would have been a nice life, but it wouldn’t have been this.”
He gestures around him. “This” includes their spare but beautiful home on 11 acres, property that was trashed when they moved in (there was a beehive in the basement, which they moved outside and kept), but today it is immaculate. The kitchen windows gaze across farmland to the deep-blue waters of the Strait of Juan de Fuca.
There’s a landmass in the distance, maybe Vancouver Island, and on a clear day, you can see all the way to Whistler. To the south, the Olympic Mountains loom. The home isn’t pretentious, but it does have touches of luxury, including a Japanese bidet in the bathroom, and the views are stunning from every room.
Justin, a native of Forks, was raised working-class in one of the oldest families on the Olympic Peninsula. A member of the Umpqua Tribe on his dad’s side, he’s also a descendant of John Huelsdonk, one of the first white settlers in the area, on his mom’s side. Huelsdonk is known as the “Iron Man of the Hoh” because he carried an iron stove 40 miles through the Hoh Rain Forest.
At the time, Huelsdonk was considered one of the greatest hunters and trappers on the peninsula. To-day, his descendant hunts in those same mountains. When Justin and Bethany aren’t eating venison he’s killed with a bow and arrow, their source of meat is pigs and chicken they’ve raised themselves.
The Rondeaus aren’t postapocalyptic end-of-day preppers, but self-sufficiency is important to them. For Justin, this is part of his family history, but Bethany is different. She comes from the type of money that allows you to hire people to do work for you. The first child of oil executives and serial entrepreneurs, Bethany grew up mostly in Oklahoma and Texas, in houses that had indoor pools and elevators. Her dad, she says, is very into his collection of airplanes.
“There are three jobs in my family,” she says, “chemical engineer, attorney, and doctor. I was supposed to go to college, get a degree, and have a three-car garage and two kids. That was the plan. I wasn’t down with that plan.”
Instead, she got into raptors.
Bethany got interested in falconry after reading My Side of the Mountain, a young-adult novel about a boy who runs away from home and raises a baby falcon on his own. She got her first hawk at 14. But before her parents would consent to getting their teen daughter a pet raptor, she says they made her sign a liability waiver: If it ever attacked her siblings, they would take over ownership and get rid of it.
Apex predators are an unusual hobby for a young woman, and when I ask if Bethany was a tomboy or a girly girl, she seems a bit exasperated by the question. She was both: She liked putting on dresses, but she also liked watching birds with three-inch talons hunt for their dinner. She’s sick of being asked about her gender, something journalists tend to focus on.
“Gender has never held me back because I’ve never given it permission to hold me back,” she says, adding that anyone who underestimates her for any reason does so at their own peril.
Her husband nods along as she says this, clearly agreeing.
Justin also got interested in falconry after reading My Side of the Mountain. In his early 20s, he was apprenticing for a master falconer on Whidbey Island when he and Bethany happened to meet.
“I had a good dog and a good hawk,” Justin says, explaining her attraction to him. They’ve been together, along with the dog, ever since.
It’s a partnership that seems almost ideally balanced: Where she is cutthroat, a businesswoman to her very core, he is disarmingly goofy and tender, making sure his wife is fed and hydrated while she’s working. Her parents, however, weren’t thrilled about the partnership, especially when she moved to the Northwest to live in an Airstream outside Corvallis, Oregon, with a man she’d just met. She says her parents cut her out of their will, and they didn’t speak to each other for two years.
“Meanwhile, my parents said I couldn’t be cut out of the will because then my two brothers would inherit their whole debt,” Justin jokes, sitting beside her.
The couple found a farm in Corvallis with people willing to let them park the Airstream in their horse pasture for $200 a month. In order to pay their rent and start saving, they got a few cannabis clones from a friend and turned the closet in their camper into a grow room using 400-watt lights. That first cycle, they grew half a pound of weed, and decided to keep going.
Justin has a green thumb, and he’s fascinated by genetic potential. When it comes to breeding falcons, this means collecting semen. Justin shows me a video on his phone of the collection process: A man wearing a flat rubber hat walks into a falcon’s enclosure, bends at the knees, makes a cry like a wailing baby, and the falcon mounts his head, flaps its wings a few times, does its thing, and flies off. The semen collected from the hat will be used to inseminate a female of the species.
“Wow, that was fast,” I say.
“C’mon,” Justin replies. “It wasn’t that fast. Give him some credit.”Breeding new strains of cannabis doesn’t require getting humped, but there is a lot of trial and error.
“Genetics have always played a huge factor in our success,” Bethany says. “It makes a brand unique. Whoever came up with the Honeycrisp apple is a multimillionaire, I guarantee it.”
After a year of growing weed in their Airstream in Corvallis, the couple moved up to Washington and started a medical dispensary located between Sequim and Port Angeles. Even then, 90 percent of the products they sold in the dispensary they grew themselves.
Bethany would work on the retail side seven days a week while Justin was tending the plants. And in the early days, they didn’t have much to protect them from either criminals or the law. Bethany says they had a good relationship with the local sheriff’s department—but at any moment, their business could have been raided, as was happening elsewhere across the state. People would lose everything in a moment: their inventory, their cash, their business, and even their homes and other assets.
Despite the risks of the medical market, when Initiative 502 legalizing recreational weed was proposed in Washington State, Bethany was wary. Thanks to being located in the Olympic rain shadow, Sequim and Port Angeles occupy a sunny oasis on the otherwise dreary peninsula and thus tend to attract retirees and older people.
As a medical marijuana provider, Bethany felt like she was really helping people deal with their pain, and a large number of their customers were living with cancer. A sufferer of migraines herself, Bethany found that cannabis was more effective and less debilitating than prescription painkillers. She also knew that despite assurances from the state, if recreational weed passed, the medical market as she knew it would be over.
She even wrote a letter to her customers urging them to vote against Initiative 502, explaining that if legalization passed, the state was going to impose high taxes and the cost of weed was going to skyrocket. This is exactly what happened.
“Patients were better taken care of back then,” she says. “It cost less, growers made more, and retailers made more. Now everyone is making less but the state.”After 502 passed, Bethany and Justin decided it was time to diversify their business interests, and they started to get serious about falcon breeding.
Exporting birds is strictly regulated by state, federal, and international law, and in 2015, Bethany became the youngest internationally licensed falcon exporter in the world. Around the same time, Justin was approached by a dealer in the United Arab Emirates via Facebook, and now, a few times a year, their birds get flown on commercial airlines to buyers in the Persian Gulf.
In photos of one of these flights posted online, you can see a dozen or so birds—their heads covered in hoods just like the one Sky was wearing in the living room—sitting next to men in kaffiyehs on airplanes.
The two businesses, cannabis and falcon breeding, have a lot in common. In addition to the importance of genetics, both are high risk—and high reward. Falconry “is the highest high and the lowest low in the span of seconds,” Bethany says. The birds grow quickly. From the moment they hatch, it takes just 65 days for falcons to reach full size. Most, however, don’t survive. The first year, the mortality rate is 60 to 70 percent.
If one of their falcons does survive to adulthood, it’s most at risk when training or hunting.
Falcon hunting isn’t that much different from hunting with a man-made weapon. Hunters may, for example, let their dogs loose near a duck pond. The dogs flush the ducks out, and then the falconer releases the falcon, which then swoops overhead and nabs the duck out of the air. But as deadly as they are, falcons have predators of their own, including coyotes, golden eagles, and great horned owls. The couple lost one of their own falcons to a red-tailed hawk some years ago.
“Everything has to eat,” Justin says. “There’s so much beauty in this, but it will break your heart.”
The same could be said of the cannabis market. After voters approved Initiative 502 in 2012, the state issued licenses to thousands of cannabis producers and processors, including Bethany and Justin. Still, inventory was low, and in the first months of recreational pot, the price of weed skyrocketed. Customers were paying up to $20 a gram, and growers and processors scrambled to enter the market. Some of these growers had no experience with weed, and others had no experience in business. Not even seven years after legalization passed, hundreds of producers have closed up shop.”
People didn’t realize how hard this industry was going to be,” Bethany says. “They weren’t prepared for it.”Prices have dropped precipitously since the early days of recreational weed. Today, you can get an ounce of industrially produced flower for less than $40. On the black market, that would have cost 8 to 10 times as much, and plenty of growers are dropping their prices to keep up. Not Falcanna.
“It’s this race to the bottom,” Beth-any says, “and we’re not doing it.
“By refusing to lower their prices or compromise quality, Falcanna is well-positioned in the market. Falcanna flower, which is all pesticide-free, typically costs $12 to $14 a gram, or around $300 an ounce—but you get what you pay for. Every detail of the product, from the biodegradable packaging to the hand-trimmed buds and hand-rolled joints, is deliberate. “We only sell products we would use ourselves,” Bethany tells me more than once.
On a tour of one of the company’s indoor farms, she shows me the post-curing room, where food-grade plastic bags hold pounds of fresh, fragrant cannabis. She opens up a bag of Orange Blossom, one of dozens of strains developed by Justin, and the smell of citrus fills the air. It’s like standing outside an Orange Julius.
Another strain, Pacific Purple (a cross of Pacific Blue and Purple Kush), is deeply purple and dotted with tiny orange hairs. It smells like wine and berries. Later, it will be hand-packaged and delivered to retailers across the state.
All this attention to detail is paying off: The company has done millions in sales while other growers are failing. When I ask why they think this brand is growing while so many others have gone belly-up—is it the weed? Is it the falcons?—Justin says, without hesitation, it’s his wife.
The weed is good, but really, she’s the secret sauce in the product, he says. She brushes this off and says it’s a team effort.
After Bethany feeds the falcon in the living room—he rips through quail bone as though it were lettuce—we head down the road to see the farm, and I ask if she’s proud of what she’s accomplished. “Yes,” she says after a moment’s pause. “I always wanted to go to Japan and see a teahouse, and we did it.”