Worth over $2 billion annually, California’s world-renowned wines used to be its number one cash crop, but now they’ve been surpassed — err..blown away — by the marijuana industry, which according to a 2011 report is worth $14 billion, a whopping seven times that of the vineyards! And it’s growing every year.
It should go without saying that northern California has quite a unique and interesting culture, with the cultivation and possession of the valuable plant legal on the state level but illegal on the national. Religious groups also frequently join in the foray by funding private eradication teams as well as attack campaigns that target both the industry and any politicians supporting the industry. But it is also a very well-paying job and thus there is never a shortage of willing applicants. The hard part however is getting in, as there is no real resume or application process per se but rather hordes of vagabonds, hippies, and stoners flooding the nearby highway shoulders with signs that all read something to the effect of “will work for weed or money.”
Driving north from San Francisco on the 101 with the ocean running along my left-side and the redwoods on the right steadily increasing in size is always a peaceful and relaxing drive from me. It is along this highway where every fall countless wanderers come to town in search of work. Some individuals get lucky and find it, making thousands of dollars to fund their next few months of travels in a short time. Others are forced to hitch-hike out of town empty-handed. Yes, the Emerald Triangle may break some, but also makes many others.
So How Does The Process Work?
As I mentioned, the hard part is actually finding work. You see, while countless people around town might have a dozen or two plants, all of the big farms are located up in the mountains about a 1-3 hour ride away from the 101. During the summer growing season these mountain crops are manned day-in and day-out by a grow team, the more members the more plants. One outdoor setup that I worked at in 2010 had a core team of only four or five individuals but around 6,000 plants. In 2011 I was worked at an older, more established farm, where the old man boasted having 25,000 plants!
This work is all done by locals, either the property owners themselves or paid expert “weedsitters” working for a lump sum once the harvest is sold. The work that brings in the out-of-towners and Humboldt college students occurs in the fall, when the final product needs to be trimmed and packaged. Things usually start slow in late September, with October and November being the best working months. By December (and January, if you are one of the lucky ones) the trimmers on hand are reduced to a bare minimum, if any. These will be only the most skilled workers, people who can trim 2-3 pounds if it is decent bud.
By the time harvest season finally comes around, not only around these mountain guys tired, broke, and eager to go “visit town,” but they also have not had any significant interaction with outsiders for several months. Kind of makes it hard to hire a few dozens trimmers. That is where the residents of the coastal towns along the 101 come in handy, towns like Arcata, Eureka, and Fortuna. Growers will have several contacts they call every fall, think of them as “weed agents.” The grow team advises these agents as to how much marijuana needs to be trimmed and when it will be ready for work (usually just a cpl days).
These agents are then in charge of assembling teams and leading them up into the mountains, at least for outsiders not already in the loop. Obviously friends and family get preferential treatment, but many luckily individuals get plucked up off the streets. From there the drive up into the mountain begins — don’t be surprised if you are blindfolded or forced to pull your shirt up over your head.
It is worth noting that sometimes the agents are given special instructions, such as hire women only. If you should ever be offered a position such as this, be careful. Certain growers prefer to use all women because they have not seen any females in months. They will frequently use lures such as alcohol or other substances to distract the girls from the tedious work and take them to bed. Another popular item is to pay the girls a little bit more if they offer to trim with their tops off.
And as with anything else, there are always exceptions to the rule. However it never hurts to be aware.
The towns where outsiders are taken to work usually don’t have a population of more than 1,500. Most have nothing to them but one general store (which more times than not is coincidentally owned by the biggest landowner) that will stock fresh milk, eggs, and meat, as well as an ample supply of brand new Fiskars scissors and clear turkey-basting bags.
Trimming All Day & Night
When trimming, you are paid by your final output, not the hours worked. Current rates are $200/lb, although apparently it used to be $250 several years ago, before the economy slowed, when the area wasn’t quite so flooded with perspective workers. On average it takes about eight hours to trim a full pound, although experienced trimmers can sometimes trim as much as 3lbs in 16 hours. Of course it also depends on the type of product, whether dense fat clumps or small stringy tufts, but regardless you can see how it becomes easy to make a couple grand a week.
Each operation is different. Some will have lean-to cabins or guest quarters built that contain tables, scissors, overhead lighting, and a fan. There you will be forced to bring your own tent and camp outside. Others will use a trailer or two as trimming quarters but leave one area as a designated sleeping quarters. If you are lucky your operation will have a nice flat screen and plenty of movies laying around. Almost all have an abundance of booze, but it may not be free. Edibles are common and usually free. And of course you can smoke as much as you want…although you will be wasting time that could be spend working, so if you do so balance things wisely.
Trimming itself is really really tedious. Don’t get me wrong, it’s fun the first day, maybe even the second…but it quickly becomes a chore. Your scissors get sticky and hard to operate, they must be periodically cleaned with rubbing alcohol. Everything sticks to you and you stick to everything.
Several times an hour you must stop and wipe down your fingers and hands, which become literally blackened with THC referred to as “finger hash.” Most people smoke this or take it home with them.
Another beauty of trimming is that it is a surprisingly risk-free job, despite the quasi-legal career field. As everyone should know, raids are frequent up in the mountains. Eradication teams love to land officers via helicopter while simultaneously storming the front gates. Although growers have been taken to jail, the trimmers are released on scene after nothing more than a light questioning. After all, we’re just victims of the economy who are trying to keep food on the table
But as these towns are so small, everyone already knows everyone and they all watch each others’ backs. Daily phone call conversations (via landlines, as often these towns have no cell service) keep locals informed as to the helicopters current locations. Any strange cars along the deserted mountain roads are immediately deemed suspicious and given a watchful eye — although you may not even realize you are being watched. Occasionally if anti-marijuana teams should get to close, growers will even pay the trimmers for any unpaid work and kick them out. The growers themselves then proceed to just lay low inside with their fingers crossed, pretending no one is home.
Because the work is slow, tedious, and repetitive, most people tire of it after only a few days. Others may last a week or even two, but regardless everyone eventually needs a break for at least a couple days. At this point all of your turkey bags are weighed and you get handed a fat stack of cash.
After spending a couple days on the beach, catching up with friends and random locals alike, or relaxing around the slightly-bigger-yet-still-small towns along the 101, most people usually head back “up in the mountains” (California slang for working the cannabis fields) and repeat the whole process over. Sometimes you return to the same operation, sometimes you don’t, but each is always a learning experience. Once I stumbled upon this small town where one of the local residents had coined and distributed his own gold and silver coins named after said town — apparently some of the locals use them for deals amongst themselves.
By December the outdoor season is coming to an end and the excess work quickly dries up. Many workers have already gotten tired of trimming and hit the road again.
As everyone’s final paychecks start to roll in, the town begins to empty out. Well, kind of.
Half of the people take their profits and spend the next three or four months traveling, until the next planting season begins.
The other half purchase new vehicles or boats, even add an extension or two on to their houses. It really is an odd mixture come spring.
And as for all of the out-of-towners that had come to the Emerald Triangle for work, well most of them were already nomads to begin with. Now they have a freshly filled backpack of money with which to continue on their journeys…until the next season comes around, that is.