“All aboard,” Brady snickered, as he opened the rear door of a horse trailer hitched to a narcoleptic mid-‘90s Suzuki Samurai. The trailer’s windows were boarded over with stained scraps of plywood. I climbed right in, along with 16 others who had trekked to this remote mountain farm in Humboldt County, California, to trim marijuana. Brady slammed the door shut and padlocked it from the outside. Inside was pitch black and filthy. I fell on my ass when we started winding down the road. The trailer creaked and swayed with every bend, threatening to come loose and tumble off the mountainside. It was my first day of work.
In my real life, I’m a filmmaker living in Los Angeles. I’d been lured to the farm with the promise of choice footage and cold hard cash. My friend Summer had been living up in Humboldt for the past few years trimming weed during harvest season and thought the scene would make a great subject for a documentary. I agreed. She ran the idea by the farm’s owners, who said if I came with her to work, they’d be open to me shooting some interviews. Growers are a notoriously insular and suspicious bunch, and they don’t take kindly to outsiders. I’d seen a few documentaries that touched on the subject but never one in which the director immersed herself in their world and portrayed it from the inside. This level of access was unprecedented and promised to be exciting.
I didn’t realize how insane this project would turn out to be.
Since 1996, growing medicinal marijuana has been legal in California under Proposition 215. The state is set to legalize the recreational use and cultivation of the plant in January of 2018, but it’s still illegal federally. Which means that at any point, the DEA can bust one of these pot farms and arrest everyone on it. “If the feds show up, just run into the woods,” Summer said nonchalantly. “But don’t worry, they won’t.”
Most Humboldt growers actually opposed legalization out of fear that it would completely decimate the county’s almost exclusively cash economy. With legalization came a whole slew of problems, starting with the permitting and licensing fees. Grows would be subject to taxation and government regulation, and growers would have a harder time paying trimmers under the table. Then there was the concern that the process would favor large industrial farms and push mom-and-pop operations out of business. The black market also kept marijuana prices high; when it became less dangerous to grow, more product would be available, and that would drive prices down.
The current legal gray area also means that banks won’t take marijuana money, so growers dig holes in the forest and bury their cash. Rumor was, this farm’s owners had around $250,000 stashed on their property. The average wholesale price for a pound of marijuana in California is around $2,000, and a medium-sized farm like this one can easily produce 400 pounds of weed in a season. All of that cash and all of that crop makes growers paranoid. They don’t want workers to be seen coming or going, so trimmers live in tents on the mountain for months at a time. Security is necessary — staff is well armed, and the property is gated and locked. Once I drove onto the land, I couldn’t leave without someone letting me out.
I’d met up with Summer a couple of days earlier at her place in Arcata, a quaint northern California coastal town known for Victorian architecture and marijuana. My new boyfriend Paul was with me. We’d been together for all of a month and a half, so I’d thought it was a great idea to bring him along. By the time I left trim camp, we’d spent half our relationship sharing a tent in the woods. Before we headed to the mountain, Summer took us shopping for the supplies we’d need: ultrasharp scissors made in Japan specifically for trimming weed (at least two pairs were necessary), small plastic perforated baskets to collect trimmed buds, aprons to protect our clothes.
As we left town, we passed clusters of gutter punks roaming the streets, some hitchhiking, some holding up signs saying things like “Looking for 420 Work.” These were “trimmigrants,” Humboldt speak for the seasonal workers who flood the area during the harvest hoping to land a trimming job. They came from all parts of the U.S. and the world, mostly in their twenties and broke. There was the potential to earn a decent amount of money in a short amount of time — some would make around $60,000 cash in a season, then spend the rest of the year traveling the world — but many would show up without knowing anyone, not realizing how difficult it would be to find a job with no connections. They’d run out of money and end up squatting in the town square, essentially homeless. Others would head to a supermarket parking lot in neighboring Garberville, a place growers cruised in their pickups, looking for extra labor. It was very dangerous to find work this way. “You never know who’s going to pick you up,” Summer warned. “There’s a reason why they call it Murder Mountain.” The area above Garberville had first earned this nickname back in the ‘80s after a string of serial killings, and a spate of recent deaths and disappearances kept it going strong.
It was a ten-minute hike through the redwoods to the decrepit single-wide trailer that functioned as the trim room. Fluorescent lights, folding tables and chairs, no ventilation. The smell of weed worked its way into every pore, every fiber of clothing.
I sat next to Summer so I could watch her work. “You’re basically giving the bud a haircut,” she explained, her scissors furiously snipping away, tiny leaves flying off in all directions, as she rotated the bud in her hand. The pay was between $175 and $200 per pound of trimmed weed. Summer was really fast — she did between three and four pounds a day. I was lucky if I made two.
The trim boss, a short, round-faced woman named Aylen, inspected our work and made sure no one pocketed any weed. Every night, Tyson collected our trimmed buds and weighed them in private. We’d get paid in cash when we left the mountain for good, not a moment before. I had no way to know if I was being shafted. But even if I was, what could I do about it?
Sometime during my second week, I finally met the owners, Wanda and Rex, a married couple built from hardcore Humboldt farming stock. Wanda thought the idea of a documentary sounded “interesting.” She offered to come by the camp after work so we could discuss it further. She never showed. She’d do this a few more times over the next couple of weeks. None of the other trimmigrants agreed to be filmed, especially not without the owners’ permission, so I decided to work and wait until they all felt more comfortable with me.
One day bled into the next. Rise with the sun, work all day, whiskey and weed by the fire before bed. Repeat. The temperature dropped until it reached the point where it became necessary to choose between foregoing any semblance of hygiene or contracting pneumonia. I went with the former. The only place with heat was the trim room, where Rob would play back-to-back episodes of “Coast to Coast AM,” a radio show devoted to the paranormal, junk science and conspiracy theories, while we worked.
Sitting in a folding chair under screaming fluorescent lights trimming weed for 12 hours a day while listening to George Noory really starts to mess with your mind. Maybe that noise I’d heard really was Bigfoot tree-knocking. “Did you hear that gunshot last night?” Rico asked one morning. I hadn’t. He said he’d gone to investigate and saw someone running out of the camp towards the road. Aylen insisted the noise had been a car backfiring. I didn’t know who to believe.
When they found the mold, things really started to go south. “See this?” Aylen asked, holding up a nug flecked with tiny white dots. “These buds you guys trimmed are no good. You gotta cut the mold out.” She returned the bags we’d handed over the night before. The first day we did as she asked. Then Tyson showed up with a truckload of 30-gallon trash bags filled with weed we’d already trimmed. They wanted us to redo it all. For free.
According to the experienced trimmers, the mold had erupted because the weed hadn’t been dried or stored properly, which wasn’t our fault. They whispered that what we were doing amounted to slave labor. But no one spoke up. Day after day we trimmed that moldy weed.
The air was thick with bud rot and revolution. Tyson took to carrying his pistol in plain view, stuck in the back of his dad jeans. Rex got wind of a potential worker uprising and showed up to set us straight.
“My 12-year-old daughter thinks you’re all a bunch of babies,” he taunted. “Stop complaining. Get through the mold, then you’ll get the good stuff. Anyone got a problem with that?”
No one dared look him in the eye. People like Tracee and Vance couldn’t afford to complain. They’d banked on this money. They had to hope that the new crop would be healthier, the buds would be bigger, and the money would start flowing. There was no other option. I was lucky — I had a life I could go back to. When Wanda flaked on me again, I decided to cut my losses.
Tyson cashed me out in the morning. Five hideous weeks of work amounted to just under $4,200. Before my time on the mountain, I’d had a romantic idea of hippies living on the edge of the law, getting stoned every day, trimming weed and raking in cash. The harsh reality was that this was mind-numbing, back-breaking work, and trimmers had no recourse to fight back against unfair or dangerous employment practices. People who were slow like me could work twelve hours a day, seven days a week, and barely make more than minimum wage. It wasn’t worth it. I left Paul there — it turned out he was a trimming prodigy and wanted to take advantage of it. Aylen unlocked the gate and I hit the road, driving back through the fog and the redwoods towards Highway One. I’ll never look at weed the same way again.