What happened when we got a job picking weed in California's booming cannabis industry

The rugged wilderness of Humboldt, Mendocino and Trinity Counties, northern California’s “Emerald Triangle”, produces over half the cannabis consumed in the US.

Every year, from September to December, the region swarms with seasonal agricultural workers known as “trimmers”, or “trimmigrants”, here to work the land to supply America’s legion of stoners.

For years the going rate for a pound of trimmed bud hovered at around $180-200 (skilled trimmers trim between two and three pounds a day). Today it’s $120-150. The change is partly down to Proposition 64, California’s vote to legalise recreational cannabis, which came into effect in January. Before this, cannabis farmers purported to sell only to legal medical marijuana vendors (medical marijuana has been legal in California since the ‘90s).

In reality, growers often didn’t know – or much care – who they were selling to. People would turn up with easily forgeable paperwork indicating they had a licence to sell medical marijuana, but often they were black market sellers distributing the herb across the nation, a giant illegal business that could just about claim to be acting within the law.

Today it’s a different story – regulatory costs associated with winning government permits and a market flooded by new growers have simultaneously made farming more expensive and weed cheaper, meaning less money for farm workers. Still, the annual influx has shown no sign of slowing.


Alex Dymoke and his harvest

Many Californians trim, but a large proportion of the workforce – the California Growers Association estimates 40 per cent – comes from Europe, and, to a lesser extent, South America. Autumn brings trimmigrants from Spain, France, Argentina, Austria, Russia and beyond to Garberville. The town’s population, normally around 1,000, explodes, and a raucous atmosphere descends. Garberville in October is like a world music festival set in the Wild West; a scruffy spectacle of dreadlocks, piercings, bongos, guitars, dealers and stoners unfolding daily under Humboldt’s changeable sky.

It’s deep in the hills of Humboldt County that I wander in to a fantasy of my 16-year-old self. I’m in the drying room of a cannabis farm, surrounded by more weed than I’ve ever seen. But I’m not here to get high. I am here to work. “We should hurry,” I say to Erwan, my French co-worker. Three hours ago, we were tasked with harvesting and hanging a patch of 50 cannabis plants. We are nowhere near finished. While trimming requires the dexterity of a human hand, it isn’t exactly difficult, just monotonous. The heat is intense. So is the stench.

Erwan, 24, is one of thousands who travel to California every year in search of lucrative work manicuring marijuana. Back home in Bordeaux he’s a manager at Burger King. “It’s a good job,” he says after we meet in Garberville, a remote town that serves as a hub for travelling cannabis workers. “But I wanted an adventure. And I love weed.”

When I meet him, Erwan has been in Garberville for a week. At night he sleeps in a sleeping bag under a bridge. During the day he wanders the main drag hoping to be picked up by one of the area’s many cannabis farmers. So far he’s secured two days of work. “The first time, I got paid in weed – 15g for seven hours work,” he says. “The second I got $15 an hour. It was a good experience, my first on a weed farm. But you have to be careful and trust your instincts.”

While we are chatting we are approached by Jack, a farmer with long straight hair and tattoos creeping from the sleeves of his hoody. He says he isn’t looking for trimmers, but needs people to harvest and hang a single field of plants. His offer, $20 an hour for an afternoon’s work followed by a lift back into Garberville. It seems reasonable, so we get in his truck and head into the hills.


Erwan, who sleeps under a bridge while he's looking for trimming work

On the way to the farm, I ask Jack why, of all those looking for trimming work in Garberville, he approached us. “I can tell when someone is going to be good. Some people are very sketchy, they may be limping or dragging their stuff around. You have to be able to read people. I’m good at it. My partner isn’t – he always goes into town and picks up shit people. I have a sense. This guy” – he points at Erwan – “he had a nice back pack, he looked okay. Things like that.

“Many growers drive down into Garberville looking for the hottest girls rather than the best trimmers. Girls do make the best trimmers – I don’t know why, it’s just a fact – but, if you’re only looking for hot girls, that will show in the amount of money you make.”

Does he prefer European or American trimmers? “The Americans suck,” he says. “They’re high maintenance, always complaining about the food and smoking the most weed. Europeans are the best. The Spanish sit down and work, concentrate, just get it done. They’re here for the money.”

After 15 minutes, we arrive on Jack’s farm. The job, which he demonstrates for us, involves cutting plants at the stem and laying them in an even pile on a tarp. When the pile is a foot high, we fold and twist each end of the tarp, encasing the cannabis within like a big boiled sweet. Then we carry the load up a steep muddy hill, over a narrow wooden bridge and into the drying room, where we hang each branch on wires running the length of the ceiling. The whole thing should take around five hours, he says.

In 2016, Reveal from the Centre for Investigative Reporting found tales of sexual predation and trafficking rife among trimmers in the Emerald Triangle. Stories include farmers paying women extra to trim with their tops off and drug-addled growers refusing to pay wages. Young female trimmers are particularly vulnerable. “Farming tends to be a solitary, male existence,” says Jack. “For some of these guys, trimmers are the only women they come across.”

Still, where unemployment remains high, the allure of good pay often outweighs the risks of trimming. “Back home there is no work, no industry,” says Aida, a London-based first-time trimmer from Asturias, northern Spain. She sits on the side of road in Garberville with four friends, passing a spliff.

“In London I met many people who were planning on coming here,” says Aida. “Not many British people, but Europeans; Spanish and Italians. There are a lot of bad stories, but I had a farmer contact through a friend who worked here. Really though, we don’t know anything about him, we just have to trust. We’ll see. I’m excited.”

Aida first read about trimming on the internet. “There are lots of blogs and websites with people talking about their experience.” How much is she expecting to make? “I hope $150 per pound but I’m not sure. I’m a beginner, but I’m hoping to be able to make a pound a day. If we make a lot, we want to travel down to Mexico and central America.”

Talk to enough trimmigrants, and a hierarchy soon emerges. There are those like Erwan, who come on a whim and hawk their services from the roadside, grateful for the odd day’s work. And then there are the veterans, with trusted skills and good contacts, who return to the same farms every year. The ideal is to live on a farm and trim for months on end with no accommodation or food costs. That way all money earned can go towards travelling, or simply living for the rest of the year. At the Stone Junction bar Maria, a Russian trimmer in her 20s, explains what she does for a living: “This,” she says, “I just do this.”

If grim, drizzle-soaked crusties half-heartedly appealing to any old passerby for work is the desperate end of the trimmer experience, the Stone Junction bar on a Friday night offers a vision of the fun that can be had. House music pounds from the speakers as a global crowd dances, knocking back $5 shots. It can be hard to resist the urge to spend recklessly when payment comes in the form of a large wad of cash at the end of each week.

The “trimvasion” divides opinion among Garberville residents. “No backpackers” reads a sign stuck to the window of the Blue Lagoon, a strictly locals bar in the centre of town. But some welcome the free-spending trimmigrants. Shanda, a Humboldt resident for 35 years, opened a large thrift store, Feather Rose, two years ago. “Some locals love it, others hate it,” she says of the trimmers.


Humboldt County, where plenty of herb is grown

“I love them, but with them comes this scourge of scummy people who aren’t here to trim but to panhandle and to steal. We always tell women to be careful. In Garberville you used to be able to leave your keys in your car – it’s not like that any more.” Another problem: the availability of lucrative trimming work means cheap labour is scarce. Finding young people to work in shops can be challenging. “I’m lucky I have sons,” says Shanda.

It’s a concern echoed by Fernando, owner of Calico, a lively Mexican restaurant in the middle of town. “It’s so busy at the moment, which is good, but around here no one wants to work in the restaurant business. They just want to trim.” Fernando also relies on family and friends, and has resorted to recruiting staff from Eureka, a town 70 miles away.

It’s dark when we finish hanging the last of the plants. Next, our haul will be tended to by a fresh batch of trimmers, who will use scissors to remove any mould, leaves or damage that might distract from the THC-filled bud. Jack gets into some of the figures as he drives us down the mountain. He and his partner each get 25 per cent of the profits from their harvests, while the owner of the farm gets the other 50. Is he worried about the changes that will come with legalisation?

“So many people are trying to grow these days. It’s hard for farmers because it costs $50,000 for a permit and you have to pay a certain amount per acre, no matter the quality of the harvest. But if you have a strong work ethic, and half a brain cell, there’s a lot of money to be made. You just have to be hungry. I’m hungry.”

Arriving back on Garberville’s Main Street at 8.30pm, a few forlorn trimmers are still waiting by the roadside. They look on enviously as Jack climbs out his truck, pulls a huge wad of hundreds from his pocket and hands me and Erwan one each. For Erwan the money means a night in a motel, away from the cold. “But first,” he says, “we smoke,” and rummages in his bag for his weed.

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