Worth over $2 billion annually, California‘s world-renowned wines used to be its number one cash crop. 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. Analysts at Cowen & Co. believe the nation’s legal cannabis industry could reach $50 billion by 2026, with California marijuana accounting for about $25 billion of that market.
Quick gift for all you Pinners 😉
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 frequently join in the foray by funding private eradication teams and attack campaigns that target both the industry and any politicians supporting it. 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. There is no real resume or application process, only 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, ocean on the left and redwoods on the right, is a peaceful and relaxing drive. Along this highway every fall countless wanderers and wannabe trimmers come to town in search of work. Some individuals get lucky and find it, making thousands of dollars to fund their travels in a short time. Others are forced to hitch-hike out of town empty-handed. The Emerald Triangle may break some but it also makes many, many others.
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So How Does The Process Work?
As I already mentioned, the hard part is actually finding work. Although countless people around town have a dozen or two plants, all of the big farms are located up in the mountains a 1-3 hour ride away from the 101. They are scattered across countless small villages that are closed off to outsiders. During the summer growing season the California marijuana farms are cared for day and night by a grow team; the larger the grow, the larger the team.
One outdoor setup that I worked at in 2010 had a team of only four individuals for around 6,000 plants. In 2011 I worked at an older, more established farm, where the old man boasted having 25,000 plants!
This work is all done by locals during the summer. Occasionally it is the property owners themselves but most often it is paid expert “weedsitters” with past experience. They work on consignment for a lump sum once the harvest is sold. It is that work which brings in both out-of-towners and Humboldt college students every fall, once the final product needs to be trimmed and packaged.
When does the California marijuana trimming season start?
Things usually kick off to a slow start in late September, with October and November being the best working months. By December (and January, if you are one of the lucky ones who has managed to hold onto their job past new year) the trimmers on hand are reduced to a bare minimum, if any. Only the most skilled workers remain, people who can trim 2-3 pounds a day 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 dozen trimmers. That is where the residents of coastal towns along the 101 come in handy — towns like Arcata, Eureka, and Fortuna.
Make friends with ‘weed agents’
Local growers will have several contacts they call every fall — think of them as “weed agents.” These agents are informed as to how much marijuana needs to be trimmed, how fast, what type of nug it is (not only strain but also key details like if it is bushy, leafy, stringy, etc) and of course the big one: when it will be ready for work. From my experience the calls usually arrive just a couple of days before the fun starts.
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. Make friends and do a good job and the same weed agent can provide you with jobs year after year.
Heading up to the mountains
Once the call has been received and you have been selected, the next step is the drive up into the mountains. Don’t be surprised if you are blindfolded, forced to pull your shirt up over your head or have your phone temporarily confiscated. Luckily as a truck owner, ever since my first trip up I’ve been a driver and never had to be blindfolded 😉
The towns where outsiders are taken to work usually don’t have a population of more than 1,500 or 2,000. 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. Plus they always have an ample supply of brand new Fiskars scissors and clear turkey-basting bags.
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, cocaine and/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.
As with anything else, there are always exceptions to the rule. However it never hurts to be aware. Stay safe, ladies 😉
Trimming All Day & Night
When trimming, you are paid by your final output, not the hours worked. Current rates are $200/lb. Apparently it used to be $250 several years ago, back 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 trim as much as 3lbs in 16 hours. Of course it also depends on the type of bud, whether dense fat clumps or small stringy tufts. 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’ll be wasting time that could be spend working. So if you do smoke while working (like me) be sure to balance things wisely.
Trimming is actually really, really tedious. It is not fun. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a blast the first day, maybe even the second…but it very 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 while trimming and then take the leftover home.
Negligible Work Hazards
Another beauty of trimming is that it is a surprisingly risk-free job, despite the quasi-legal career field. As everyone should know, raids can be frequent up in the mountains. Eradication teams love to fly in 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 — if that. After all, we’re just victims of the economy who are trying to keep food on the table 😉
Because 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. You probably will not even realize you are being watched.
Occasionally if anti-marijuana teams should get to close, growers have been known to pay the trimmers for any unpaid work and kick them out. The growers themselves then just proceed to just lay low inside with their fingers crossed, pretending no one is home.
Trimming weed in the California marijuana fields is slow, tedious, and repetitive. It’s not fun, and even less so when you even add in the isolation factor. Most people, especially new trimmers, tire of it after only a few days. Others may last a week or even two, but soon 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.
Money in hand, most people spend a few days on the beach and nights at the bar, catching up with friends and random locals alike. Others relax around the slightly-bigger-yet-still-small towns along the 101, just sitting at home and being lazy for a couple of days.
It doesn’t take long before most to 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 grow 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. Turns out that several of the locals use them for transactions among themselves.
After The Season Ends
By December the outdoor season is coming to an end and the excess work quickly dries up. Many if not most 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 following 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, 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. At least until the next season comes around, that is.
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