California weed farms are like summer camps for adults

California weed farms are like summer camps for adults

CultureNovember 17, 2016 By Isabelle Kohn

“What do you see?”

“Green. Green for as far as the eye can see. It’s beautiful.”

“What else?”

“I see people. Black, white, yellow, purple, blue. Old, young, rich, poor.  Male, female, funny, stupid, sad, hero, hippie, runaway, businessman, mother. All types of people.”

“What are they doing?”

“Trying to get these buds off these plants before the sun goes down so we can eat!”

I’m talking to a friend of a friend, whose name I’m not allowed to say, courtesy of a spotty phone connection that makes our conversation sound like a message-in-a-bottle from deep space.

Let’s call him Jared. He’s 29 and a fast-talker. By day, he’s a pastry chef and some kid’s father. By night, he’s the reason you eat so many midnight Bagel Bites.

Jared is a seasonal weed trimmer, and he’s calling me from his place of business: a midsized grow in an undisclosed part of Northern California’s fertile marijuana valley — the infamous Emerald Triangle.

Composed of three counties — Humboldt, Trinity and Mendocino (and a handful of smaller areas like Arcata and Ukiah) — The Emerald Triangle is still, to this day, the place where the majority of America’s weed comes from. Sixty percent of the marijuana consumed in the United States is grown and harvested there, a significant percentage of which is sold to California’s popular medical marijuana markets. However, the product travels even farther than that — an impressive 80 percent of the weed sold and consumed on the East Coast comes from none other than the very area Jared is calling me from.

Producing enough pot to satiate well over half the country is a monumental undertaking. Unsurprisingly, it’s one that demands a proportionally huge workforce.

That’s why every year, thousands of people like Jared descend upon the Triangle to harvest pot on both legal and illegal farms. While it’s unknown exactly how many thousands of these farms exist there, it is known that the crop is a $2.7 billion a year product, according to The ArcView Group, a marijuana market research firm. And thanks to the legalization of recreational pot in California, sales are projected to balloon to a historical $6.4 billion by 2020.

Needless to say, pot harvesting in the Triangle isn’t a bad way to make a buck or six-thousand.

But, for the people who make it, the reality of life on one of NorCal’s weed grows isn’t always worth the paycheck … although, as I discovered in some cases, it’s worth much more.

I spoke to three people who’ve done it find out how it all works.

The rundown

The majority of Emerald Triangle workers land the job through underground word-of-mouth referrals — you’ve got to know a guy. These referrals are integral to the experience of seasonal weed trimming though — since you’ll be spending anywhere from one to three months on a possibly illegal farm with a small group of people, it’s tantamount that you don’t suck. Thus, when it comes to hiring you, grow bosses are generally less interested in the merits of your LinkedIn page and more interested in whether you’re reliable, trustworthy and drama-free.

“You don’t need any skill to do this,” Jared tells me. “It just takes a little concentration, stamina and a good sense of humor.” Reassuring, in case I ever decide on a career change.

In 1999, Jared himself landed the job through a referral, and he’s never looked back. Seventeen years later, he’s trimmed and worked all over NorCal on around 20 farms, both legal and illegal.

But it’s not just the money that keeps him coming back. Although he makes anywhere between $150 and $300 a day working on a farm, it’s the singular social experience he’s most interested in.

“Over the years, I’ve really fallen in love with the community out here,” he tells me. “At this point, I’d say I come up here half for work, and half just to visit, live in the woods and visit and be a part of this really interesting community that I fell in love with.”

That word — community — is something I hear over and over. Throughout the Triangle, there seems to be a shared understanding of mutual respect between workers and grow bosses, one that encourages helpfulness, equality, environmental sustainability and mindful understanding. People from all ages, gender, ethnicities and walks of life wind up on these farms, sharing living spaces in RVs, yurts, tents and barns, cooking each other meals and taking turn doing chores. A little cult-y, sure, but there’s no pervasive dogma to make it so. Instead, these farms exist as little microcosms of coexistence; the variety you might not expect to find out in the real world.

For this reason, Jared’s experience has been overwhelming positive. That, and all his grows have been outdoors, organic and sustainable, which he appreciates.

And he gets days off. He can leave whenever he wants. When he can, he goes to the ocean.

“There's been years where we've had catered food and entertainment and massage, but as the prices dropped over the past five years, I think it's been cut in half. A lot of the amenities have been scrapped away and the pay has even gone down. It's a little bit more provide for yourself now, but people still make an effort to provide for each other, too.”

I admit, I’m a little jealous. That sounds too fun. I ask what the downside is.

“I’ve heard myths of people having to turn their cell phones off or being under lockdown,” he tells me. “Maybe that's happening. But, I've never seen it. There's such a huge spectrum of different types of farms and people and operations going on up here. Mine are all very, family-friendly, and they feel very legitimate. There's not a lot of paranoia and distrust.”

Why isn’t everyone doing this then? I ask him

Well, he says, they actually are.

They’re called trimmigrants — seasonal weed workers who travel to NorCal during the harvest in search of work. Each year, an estimated hundred thousand or so of them descend upon the area, temporarily increasing local populations and infusing them with global flavor — people come from every inch of the world in hopes of finding work there. Typically, they're welcomed by the locals, as they contribute massively to cities' individual economies, but, there's also a sad downside.

Without the all-important personal referral I mentioned earlier, many of these trimmigrants are unable to secure work ... and there is often more labor available than there are farm positions. This effectively leaves trimmigrants who don't find work homeless, forced to camp illegally in parks, alleys and along railroad tracks and rivers. Some who can’t find jobs and turn to panhandling and frequenting food banks.

Rachel Hartley is lucky enough not to have had that problem. She’s a 26-year-old law student who also came for the cash, but stayed for the good times. Her experience has been a bit stricter, though.

“Being up here is like being at boarding school for adults,” she told me. The workers on her farm sleep in bunkhouses and eat mess hall-style. They’re assigned different jobs and responsibilities that keep the production going at maximum efficiency — they dry trim, water the plants, clean, cook … you name it. Whatever it is though, it’s done as a unit.

When she’s working, she’s not allowed to leave the mountain. And while no one confiscates her cell phone, there is exceptionally spotty service where she is, so they might as well.

“We are very secluded,” she admits. “I've heard horror stories of sketchy trim situations, but so far up here I've been blessed to feel safe and secure.”

In fact, Hartley actually welcomes the seclusion. It’s a chance for peace and self-examination; a time where the long and monotonous labor often gives way to personal realizations that, under the stress of daily life, don’t always have a chance to surface.

“Being up here is often a time of deep reflection,” she says. “Everyone here is at a point in their lives where they either are sick of their 9-5 and want to make a change in their life, or are saving to invest in their career. It's a beautiful experience.”

However, while Jared and Hartley have found community and a rare space for meditative self-advancement, others haven’t struck the same gold.

Amongst the rolling hills and vibrant weed-farming culture of the Emerald Triangle, dark things do happen.

Missing persons and allegations of sexual abuse aren’t uncommon in NorCal’s weed industry. As a 2016 investigation revealed, dozens of accounts of sexual exploitation and trafficking on weed farms have been reported. Victims’ advocates say the problem is far larger than that though, and, with every harvest, continues to grow.

"Women believe they are getting hired for trimming work, and then they’re drugged and raped," said Maryann Hayes Mariani, a coordinator for the North Coast Rape Crisis Team. "Everybody looks at (the region) like it’s the Land of Oz. I’m just so tired of pretending like it’s not happening here."

Yet, police aren’t really addressing the problem with sexual assault on farms — instead, they tend to focus their resources on what they think the root cause of the assault is: the drug trade.

The number of trimmigrants who go missing is also overwhelming. In 2015, Humboldt County reported 352 missing people, more per capita than any other county in the state.

This information shocked and saddened Bailey Berghman, a 27-year-old music producer who’s been trimming in NorCal since 2013. She’s worked on four farms, mostly trimming, but has also “dabbled” in transport (that California weed doesn’t walk to New York).

For the most part, her experience has been similar to Jared and Hartley’s: diverse, community-based grows populated by people who value the summer camp-like experience as much as the cash. However, she hasn’t always felt at ease on her farms. In her experience, people put their nose to the grind and keep to themselves. They’re friendly, but they’re also there to work. Everyone sleeps in their own tents, and it’s silent in the meal area, where they eat a lot of baked beans and defrosted pizza.

“There’s been a few times I felt uncomfortable with a co-worker,” she says. “People in the community always look out for each other. But … I can see why girls who are assaulted wouldn’t say anything. When you report a crime that takes place on an illegal grow, you put the entire farm in danger … which is warranted. Except there’s this feeling of community …” she trails off.

Picking up on a moment of reflection, she admits, “I wouldn’t feel wholly comfortable going to the authorities in that situation.”

I don’t pry into the source of her discomfort. From the tone of her voice, it’s not something she wants to discuss.

I do, however, ask whether she feels safer on legal grows, something there’s likely to be much more of in the very near future.

She tells me no.

“There are weird people everywhere,” she says. “You don’t have to be isolated in the middle of Mendocino country to find dangerous ones. You don’t have to be doing something illegal to feel coerced into not speaking up. People are harassed and assaulted in their own homes; in their own 9-5 offices. It’s no different here. A legal grow or an illegal grow? They’re the same. I feel no less safe here than I do walking in my own neighborhood.”

So, what does she get out of it, then? For her, working in NorCal is just a way to make a lot of cash, fast. On a larger farm last year, she pocketed $8,400 for four weeks of work. For someone like Berghman where every dollar counts, that’s an unbeatable deal. It’s also a way to decompress from her home life.

Back in Sacramento where she lives, her mother is sick. She works in bars where she endures the bane of sloppy drunks in order to free up time for her musical endeavors. She wants more out of life, but she feels stuck.

Disappearing to Northern California, and from the grid — all but one of Berghman’s farms have had limited-use cell phone policies and she could not leave the property — feels like a break. She doesn’t have to tell anyone where she is, what she’s doing or why; she just … doesn’t see anyone for a few weeks and comes back rich.

A legal-gray area

Just like every worker has a different relationship to their farms, every farm also has a different different relationship to law enforcement.

It’s one that Jared has found entirely unpredictable. “The laws change every year, and they have been since medical marijuana was first legalized in California in the ‘90s,” he explains. “You never really know how the authorities are going to interpret the law each year. It seems like their main motivation after a while was just to confiscate money and they weren't really about drug enforcement.”

This is an unfortunate reality in an industry in which the legality of the operation isn’t always made clear to the workers (although Jared says farms where there’s an HR guy and workers are allowed to come and go as they please are usually legit). Nor is where the weed goes — workers aren’t necessarily informed if they’re harvesting a dispensary grow or black market bud.

As a result, sometimes, workers find out for themselves.

“I’ve been on farms where it’s like, "Okay, if you hear a helicopter, come inside,” says Jared.

… Which is exactly what happened when police helicopters did a showy fly-by on one of his grows. He was momentarily terrified and took cover, not sure whether or not he’d be arrested. However, the helicopters merely dangled imposingly in the air for a few minutes, then sped off as if to say: We know you’re here.

This, Jared says, is a common thing law enforcement likes to do — flex their muscles with flyovers and surprise seizures as a way to assert a semblance of authority over a massive, whack-a-mole industry they don’t have the time or the resources to control. 

In fact, many farm workers believe that law enforcement’s inability to monitor grows in The Emerald Triangle has lead them to lash out.

Jared explains: “In certain counties over the years, I’ve heard of embezzlement scheme by the sheriff's departments to try to get as money out of the growers as possible. I think part of that is because a). It's a multi-billion dollar industry and many farms aren’t paying taxes, so they try seize as much private property and money as possible, and b.) They're probably also frustrated with the ambiguity of the laws, because a lot of times they'll do a big bust and then everyone on their team will get let go. Then they wasted all these resources. Sometimes it's easier for them to come and to take a bunch of stuff and then not press any charges with hopes that who's ever property they seized won't try to get it back.

I don't really have any proof of this except for stories I've heard from other growers who say, 'Oh yeah, we got raided. They came and took all the money and left. No charges were pressed.’”

Hard data is scant, but anecdotes and interviews with attorneys, growers, and sheriffs confirm this story is typical. Though unsurprisingly, I could find no real evidence of embezzlement.

What I did find was a lot of raid-first-questions-later rhetoric.

Growers John, Amy and Tom (last names withheld) told KALW, a local public radio station in San Francisco, that their grow was raided by helicopters last year. Federal agents came down on ropes and chopped down their entire crop, about $200,000 worth of weed. But, they didn’t prosecute. Amy said she thinks it’s because they had under 100 plants — but even that’s a legal gray area. Federally, it’s illegal to have even one plant, but a grower is also more likely to be prosecuted for the mandatory minimum sentence of five years in prison if they have over 99.

Amy says she doesn’t lose any sleep over it, though. “Compared to some people, some people have 1,000 plants. Those people are afraid, all summer long,” she said.

Last year, helicopter-borne police from the California Department of Justice's own Campaign Against Marijuana Planting destroyed a record 4,463,917 plants — the highest amount in the campaign’s 31-year history. Contributing to that number was a massive multi-farm raid that annihilated 100,000 plants in a single day, a bust police claimed to have enacted not because the grows were illegal, but because they were illegally draining local water resources from the nearby Eel River.

The growers aren’t buying it, though.

“This isn't about the environment; this is about business as usual," Hezekiah Allen, director of the Emerald Growers Association told Mother Jones. Allen scoffed at the notion that the raid was environmentally motivated, pointing out that wine agriculture in the area put an even bigger drain the local environment — yet, no one’s raiding vineyards. 

Jared hopes that the legalization of California’s Proposition 64 will at least partially quell the injustice and frustration law enforcement feels up in NorCal, as well as improve environmental regulations that lead to conflicts like this in the first place.

It will — recently passed statewide medical marijuana regulations just set new environmental standards for marijuana operations. And defending wildlife and water was a huge part of Proposition 64, measure that just legalized recreational pot.

However, not everyone is happy about it.

The Recreational Triangle

With the passage of Prop 64, many longtime farmers are worried legalization will end traditional weed farming as they know it by bringing with it unexpected and potentially debilitating costs.

It definitely will. Industry licensing for recreational grows and dispensaries isn’t cheap, and while the cost varies by location, the average cost of a recreational license alone can rack up a $10,000-$15,000 bill. However, Prop 64 does scale fees to meet business size, an offering meant to allow more grows to go legal.

Still, Jared thinks smaller grows who don’t have the resources or capital to meet the standards of a legal grow will continue on as illegal black market grows … or go out of business. Larger grows, he believes, will convert to recreational grows. They’re the ones who can afford to comply with Prop 64’s inspections and codes.

The bigger farms he’s been on definitely give out that impression.

“Some of the larger grows feel the law was written for them so they can compete with Monsanto, or — you name it, any company that wants to come in and get a piece of the billions,” he says.

Currently, the measure requires that marijuana farms larger than an acre go legal within the first five years of legalization.

“That should be enough time for small farmers to come out of the shadows, get licensed and get on making a living legally,” Allen says.

However, although Jared admits doing this could definitely change the atmosphere on farms and cause small grows to shut down, he also says that the bigger injustice is anyone would be arrested and prosecuted for this type of work.

“Legalization, as much as it seems more beneficial for the economy than individuals, seems like the right thing,” he says.

Berghman is also concerned about the impact of legalization on the trade as she knows it.

“To me, more regulations mean less money,” she says. “I’m worried legal recreational farms will start having more stringent hiring departments that dole out stricter budgets as they pay to meet inspection and environmental standards. I can’t imagine it’ll be the sort of financial Wild West it’s always been for me once grows go legal.”

However, some growers think Prop 64 is a huge step forward for an industry just now emerging from the shadows.

Mendocino County grower Tim Blake, Proposition 64 told The Cannabist that when California became the first state to legalize medical marijuana in 1996, it ushered in a less restrictive era in which businesses could start to operate in the open and even attract deep-pocketed investors.

Proposition 64 aims to regulate — and tax — that entire supply chain. Legalizing recreational use will legitimize the drug, leading to even more use and consumption, proponents argue.

“You’re going to see cannabis grow at levels people can’t even fathom,” Blake said.

Many of these grows will still be outdoors. They’ll still require trimmigrant labor. People will still have the option to live and work communally on the farm. The workforce will still be diverse. And, as long as the grows are allowed to flourish in the pot paradise that is The Emerald Triangle, going there to work will still be a therapeutic respite from daily life.

But … in a post-Prop 64 world, things might not always be that way. With recreational weed comes the migration of pot farms away out of the forest and onto the freeway. It’s simply easier, more efficient, less environmentally damaging and more feasible to operate industrial-sized grows near highways and population centers than it is on a remote mountaintop far from the nearest highway. That's probably the reason why one of the year's biggest busts, an 11,000-plant operation, was near Fresno and not Ferndale.

Large-scale indoor grows are also more economically viable. Unlike the vast, outdoor weed acreage in the Emerald Triangle, warehouse grows offer year-round harvesting. More crops equals more money. And when warehouses are located closer to cities, grow bosses don’t have to worry about doling out additional money to food and shelter to their workers. There are lower transportation costs. There’s less likelihood of natural disasters or diseases smiting entire crops.

It’s just … easier.

Right now, no one knows for certain how recreational weed will affect the culture and traditions of NorCal’s weed farms. Medical marijuana certainly strengthened it, so there’s little indication that recreational pot wouldn’t follow suit. For now, the Triangle’s weed workers are content to just wait and see.

“I’m not shaking in my shoes about it,” says Berghman. “There’s something really special about coming here. It’s as much the culture as it is the cash. I don’t think people are going to give that up so easily. I’m certainly not.”

As long as Americans continue smoke weed, eat it, and rub it on their genitals for sexual pleasure, I don't think they are either.