Two men were hunting for a good spot for a deer stand last fall when they stumbled upon a patch of marijuana plants.
They notified the Sedgwick County Sheriff’s Office, who along with agents from the Kansas Bureau of Investigation kept an eye on the plants for nearly a year.
On Wednesday, authorities disposed of plants they estimated could produce enough weed to command millions of dollars in street sales.
“They’ve appeared to abandoned it,” said Capt. Annette Haga of the Sedgwick County Sheriff’s Office.
Some of the nearly 4,000 plants were so thick they required a chain saw to cut. Other officers used a machete to slice through the crop.
All were armed.
“We always assume we’re being watched, because that’s how we do it,” said KBI Special Agent Rod Page, as he drove up to where another agent stood guard with a rifle. “We always say a watched pot field is never picked.”
Page said such a large operation often involves interstate drug trafficking.
With so much money at stake, it also poses dangers to unsuspecting land owners, who find their property infiltrated, particularly dense, wooded areas.
“We want people to be aware of these, because we don’t want any innocents getting hurt,” Page said.
In southeast Kansas, KBI agents drew gunfire while investigating a large marijuana field.
Authorities find such marijuana crops across the state.
“We had one of these a year ago last May, where a farmer happened to find it,” Haga said.
These plants grew on a wooded plot in northwest Sedgwick County that belonged to a larger parcel of land that had been in the same family for 130 years. The landowners asked not to be identified for safety reasons.
“It’d been in their family all those years and then it gets invaded — that’s about the only word I can think of for it,” Page said.
The growers had been living in the field, leaving behind a campsite that included a table made of sticks and still had bags of potatoes and onions. It was littered with beer cans and foam cups.
“They buy the cups by the case and use it for seedlings,” Page explained.
In the first two hours Wednesday, one agent said she and others had cut down 1,800 plants.
They ended the day disposing of 3,842 plants, Page said.
Each plant, Page estimated, could produce enough marijuana to bring a street value of $1,000.
So this crop, planted in an area roughly 100 feet by 100 yards, could have produced $3.8æmillion worth of marijuana.
Scattered around the campsite were small scissors Page said were used to clip off the buds. Near the campsite stood drying racks to prepare the harvest for sale.
“All out here in the middle of nowhere,” Page said.
The growers had taken care to avoid detection.
The KBI uses aircraft, such as helicopters from the Missouri Army Air National Guard, to comb the Kansas plains for pot fields.
These grew near a river, with the campsite under foliage to avoid being visible from the air.
Page pointed to swaths cut in the trees to allow the sun to shine through to small patches and feed the plants.
The KBI has been finding marijuana fields in Kansas since 1939, Page said. They’ve uncovered fields that were run by groups with names like the Cornbread Mafia, and even local bankers and law enforcement officers.
Page said agents have followed the pot to the East Coast, to Las Vegas, and across the country.
“This is just the latest evolution of it,” he said.
Page also said he’s seen more of a cost than just the money made from illicit drugs.
“I’ve heard people say this is a victimless crime,” Page said. “But I’ve spent time giving kids dried cereal in the middle of the afternoon, because their parents were so high they forgot to feed them.”