Disclaimer: All views expressed in this post are my own. For privacy purposes, no names or specific locations have been mentioned.
There I was on the Greyhound bus, nervously fiddling with the $2,000 cash in my bra. Once I confirmed that my earnings were still nestled between “the girls,” I went through the ritual of discreetly patting the other three wads of cash strapped to various parts of my body. Cash, after all, is a wily thing that can slip through your fingers (or your bra) if you’re not paying the proper amount of attention.
After spending five weeks tediously trimming copious amounts of marijuana, it would be a terrible thing to see all those crisp new 20s and 100s forgotten on the Greyhound bus floor. As I glanced around the bus at the other passengers mass exiting Humboldt County, it was easy to imagine that I wasn’t the only one with this problem.
Now let me ask you this: were you a pothead in high school? As a true born-and-raised southern California, Sublime loving, beach girl, I can certainly say that I was. If you were like me (a high school pothead, not necessary a girl form southern California) did you ever imagine – between bong rips – that there were thousands of people sitting in rooms, hand-trimming every “dank bud” that you put in your pipe? Because I sure as hell did not.
But that is exactly where your buds come from, people. Every bud I trimmed on those farms was lovingly clipped free of unsmokable leaves and stems to be sent from farm to dispensary and into your hand like a darling, hand-crafted, artisan pick-me-up.
It actually seemed to me that speed was the name of the game in the weed trimming world. The faster you trim, the more pounds you accumulate, and the more pounds you accumulate, the more cash you’ll have to hide in your bra at the end of the season.
These days, trimmers get paid an average of $150 per pound, but legend has it that in the golden days of the marijuana industry, trimmers could make between $200 to $300 per pound. If you consider that some of the fastest trimmers can do three pounds a day (although I’ve heard even higher accounts) that’s some pretty hefty cash.
This is of course on illegal farms in California. As marijuana laws have shifted to become more accommodating for the lowered stigmatization and the increased demand, legal trimming jobs have also become available, especially in fully legalized states such as Oregon. But residents from Oregon still stream into California looking for trim work. Legalized trimming jobs tend to be more formalized, with application processes, set hours, weekends, insurance, taxes – the whole nine yards – and workers make an average of $15 an hour. If you’re a trimmer, you might see marijuana legalization as one of the worst things that ever happened to the marijuana industry.
In the world of illegal marijuana farms, the hiring process is a tad more informal, but not as informal as many think. I heard about weed trimming through other travelers while I was backpacking through South America. Most people were under the impression that the only requirement for finding employment on a pot farm was showing up in northern California with a pair of scissors. Not knowing any better, I was equally under the same illusion.
Whether it’s the high awareness of the job, or other factors such as fires and police raids, trimming jobs are more scarce than the rumors suggested – as evidenced by the disheveled, backpack-carrying crowd constantly in flux in northern California towns, and the amount of people sleeping illegally in the woods.
Really, it’s all about who you know. Me, being a newbie, was lucky that I wasn’t standing by the side of the road, holding my scissors and a sign that said “Will work topless.” I got my job through a daisy chain of trust that involved my cousin, a previous grower, a generous trimmer, and a marijuana farm manager. But I was one of the rare newbies on the farms. Most of the trimmers there had been at it for years, arriving during the harvest with their scissors and leaving with stacks of cash.
Before I started, I was under the impression that most of the trimmers would be wayward souls, younger than me and aimless. But, at 28, I found that most were older than me, in their early to mid 30s. It was an entire subculture of people who took a quick look at the conventional path, said a quick “fuck that” and hacked away at the undergrowth until they had made a path of their own.
One person was trimming to buy a boat so he could compete in bass fishing competitions. Another was saving to buy all the equipment he needed to start his own photography business. Some were “unbanked.” Several did not pay taxes. Plenty of them understood personally when I said that I didn’t live anywhere. Far from being aimless, the people there lived lives of unconventional purpose.
And it was inspiring. With a seasonal weed trimming job, artists didn’t starve, and musicians weren’t homeless. Well, unless they chose to be.
But next year, marijuana will be fully legalized in California, calling the future of professional trimmers into question.
Because of the shortness of the season (and because the managers want to get the fuck off the farm after eight months of growing pot) the days can be long and fast-paced. Many of us worked about 14 hours a day, trimming as fast as humanly possible without turning the bud into oregano or losing a finger. However, there are also some farms where the trim room is never closed, which means you could work 24 hours a day if you wanted to.
You know what really takes up time? Showering. Most of us relaxed our hygiene habits, preferring to stink up the room a bit rather than miss trim time with a superfluous washing. Whenever someone grabbed their towel and soap and headed to the shower, it almost felt like you had to congratulate them – and then later ask them how it was so you could experience their spa day vicariously.
In order to make the maximum amount of cash, some people even skipped meals.
Don’t get me wrong. Nobody ever made me or anyone else work 14 hours a day, or skip showers and meals. It was a personal choice, and it was all simple economics.
Far from being slave drivers, the managers at the farms I was at were very lovely people who brought us coffee in the mornings and did what they could to make sitting hunched over trays of marijuana for endless hours as pleasant and as comfortable as possible. Although I think I was lucky in that regard. It seemed that every seasonal trimmer had at least one story of sketchy managers or shady farms. I’ll get to that later.
On a weed farm, you can imagine that “as pleasant and comfortable as possible” means, among other things, partaking in the product for recreational purposes – and you would be right. You’d be hard-pressed to find a time when the scents of fresh marijuana and unwashed humans were not also mingled with the musky smell of people getting high.
On one of the farms that I worked at, the managers even brought up coolers of beer every evening. Starting around 5pm, the trimming happy hour began. When it was closing time at 10pm, the party moved down the hill to the nightly bonfire. Most nights you could hear the sounds of work-worn trimmers letting off steam until two in the morning. On Halloween, I don’t think there was a single person not under the influence of mushrooms, including myself. I was left howling at the moon from the roof of a truck, and communing with the trees.
I can’t even begin to describe how difficult trimming is with a psychedelic mushroom hangover.
But if you think about the monotony and tedium of trimming buds for 14 hours a day, every day for weeks, you could understand why people needed to let loose.
There were times when I found myself walking over a mysterious carpet made of thousands of buds that desperately needed trimming, only to realize that they were pine needles. Sometimes I woke up in the morning seeing the shapes of marijuana leaves in the creases of the tent material. I couldn’t look at a tree without seeing imperfections and knowing exactly how I would trim it. One morning, on one of the farms I was at, one of the trimmers came into the trim room, wide-eyed and pale, telling us of his dream the previous night. He described the horror of trimming hundreds of pounds of weed only to discover that they had no THC. I think everyone fell into a green tunnel at some point and then pulled themselves out at the thought of another kind of green; the kind that would carry them on paper wings to whatever adventure they chose next.
The isolation of the farms can get to you too, especially when there’s no Wi-Fi or cell signal. At times, it made the world feel very small and insulated, like we were the main characters on the Truman Show, and if we attempted to leave, we would simply run into the studio wall. Whenever someone left the farm and came back, they returned bearing the precious gift of information. What was happening with the Russia probe? Were Trump’s most recent comments going to get us into a nuclear war with North Korea? Exactly how many women had Harvey Weinstein raped?
Scratch that – living insulated from news was a form of paradise.
But when there’s a fire scare, the lack of available news sources or communication with the outside world can be downright frightening, and this is what happened while I was there. At one point, we were notified that the fire was a mere two miles from the farm, and people started to evacuate. Later it came out that that information had been sourced from a hyperbolizing, fibbing, 16-year-old down the road. But the uncertainty still hung in the air and the question became, do we evacuate or do we stay and risk waking up with our tents fusing to our skin via forest fire?
Because of all the fires in northern California during this time, there was also an increase in police presence and helicopter flyovers. As you can imagine, this would make most illegal pot growers rather nervous. This left growers far more vulnerable to discovery and raids that could result in the destruction of their crop and livelihood.
If you didn’t already know, marijuana laws lay in a gray legal area in the United States because it is categorized as a Schedule I drug (meaning it has no medical purpose) and is federally illegal. So, even in states where marijuana is legal, farms can still be raided and shut down by federal agents.
It’s not difficult to see why, then, marijuana farmers would be wary of permitting their farms, especially amidst a climate where one senator in the area is calling on a state of emergency to combat marijuana farms. According to one grower, who will remain anonymous, permitting your farm is like begging to be taken down by the federal government. Even in cases where it’s the local police, according to this grower, farms can be shut down for simple breaches of permit, such as having too much acreage.
But the lawless nature of much of the California pot-growing scene also presents a problem for the growers. They have no insurance against fires, and they’re open to thieves. There’s nothing like a bedtime story from your boss about that time his neighbors were murdered for their crop.
Trimmers have to watch their backs as well. Because the job is illegal, if the growers don’t pay you, you’re shit out of luck. Worse still, when I arrived, I heard tales of the infamous Murder Mountain. After all, there’s a simpler way to avoid paying trimmers.
At the end of the season, I left the farm to stay at a friend’s house before I made my way down to southern California. I washed my clothes, trying to get the cloying smell of weed off (unsuccessfully) and left anything that was too gunked up with hash. With bundles of cash hidden on my person, and a stash of mushrooms in my backpack, I certainly didn’t need any more paranoia to tack on to my 19-hour bus ride.
And as I watched the bus slowly roll out of Humboldt County, I imagined that the Wild West never truly disappeared. It simply moved north.