Pot-trimming season in Humboldt County
Every fall, young people in earth-toned clothes, with backpacks slung over their shoulders, descend on Humboldt County in search of work. Some offer their services on bulletin boards (“Have my own camper/living set up. Ready to start when you need me!”). Some stand by the side of the road and hold signs illustrated with leaves and scissors; others pantomime cutting. The pot harvest has come in, and local growers need trimmers.
About 30 minutes east of Highway 101, down a gravel road and up a rutted logging path, is Tumblweed and Jane’s home — a dirt-floor clearing with a tarp roof and tarp walls stretched between Douglas fir logs and a one-room camper. Tumblweed (his biker name) is 35 years old and has a shaved head, a handlebar mustache, and calves inked with metal tattoos. Jane (a pseudonym) is a foot shorter and 12 years younger and exudes energetic competence. Tumblweed and Jane are preparing their first harvest, and marijuana can be found everywhere. It dries from ceiling wires and sits in trash bags. What has already been trimmed and is ready to sell is tucked in turkey bags and stored in the camper.
One rainy October night, two young women from New York sit by a trash-barrel fire with trays of pot on their laps. While staying in a hostel in Vancouver, Canada, they heard about how much someone could make trimming pot. A decent trimmer can clear $200 a day, and many put away $10,000 or more in two months, tax-free. When the women arrived in Humboldt, they put an ad on Craigslist.
The women clip off stems and leaves and drop the finished buds into plastic receptacles. Behind a stack of firewood, Jane runs the trimmed buds over a screen to sift bits of leaf and crumble. In the opposite corner, Tumblweed trims and grumbles about how slowly the hired hands work. He drinks from a cup of whiskey splashed with 7UP and mimics their one-leaf-at-a-time form. The trimmers’ lack of speed frustrates him, one more expense chipping away at the half a million dollars he had hoped to pull out of the ground.
The pot economy of Humboldt County, which is indistinguishable from the economy of Humboldt County, is experiencing more uncertainty than usual. Everyone assumes that legalization is imminent, but no one knows what changes it will bring. Will regulation lead to a handful of big farms dominating? Will there be a market for small, artisanal growers? Will the price of pot, which has been dropping for decades, continue to fall? A pound now goes for approximately $1,500 wholesale, a steep decline from the mid-1990s when Humboldt marijuana went for as much as $5,000 a pound. This has not deterred newcomers, like Tumblweed and Jane, from migrating to the county, lured by the potential for wealth and the trappings of outlaw life. Last year, the sheriff’s office, using Google Earth, counted 4,100 grows.
Between sifting, Jane checks on the trimmers. She compliments the good-looking buds and suggests improvements on shaggier ones. Jane handles quality control, because Tumblweed, by his own admission, gives a hard time to pretty much everything and everyone. “It doesn’t matter if it has four wheels or two titties,” he says. When he was in his early 20s, he was arrested for possession of a quarter pound of pot and ended up serving three years. Afterward, he came out to California with his pregnant girlfriend and worked construction for her dad until he about couldn’t stand it. When a grower from Humboldt offered him big money to build planting beds and a bunkhouse, Tumblweed jumped at the chance. One day, when he was on a ladder, his boss stuck $10,000 in each of his nail bags. Not bad for a guy used to making $20 an hour. Tumblweed met Jane at the grow. She had moved up from trimmer to garden worker, which is unusual; mostly it’s men who dig holes and water plants. Last summer, she and Tumblweed decided to strike out on their own.
A waterfall off the tarp roof whooshes through a square-cut window, not far from where plants hang. Next year, Tumblweed declares, a drying shed is in order. With a cigarette between his lips, he itemizes some of the things that went wrong this season. He’d hoped to harvest 500 pounds. Now he and Jane will be lucky if they bring in 200. Jane put some plants in the camper to root, but heat and humidity cooked the buds. She tried to make up for the loss by purchasing 50 clones of a strain called Pineapple Trainwreck. They were coming in beautifully until the bed was left uncovered one night and deer got them — at least $30,000 in unrealized product down the gullet. Tumblweed and Jane also fumbled the desexing of some plants grown from seed. More money lost. Tumblweed is confident he’ll recoup his investment but says his profit will be slim.
At 10 p.m., Tumblweed loads the trimmers into his pickup — they’ve been at it since morning — and drives them to their campsite. When he returns, he says he doesn’t mind how things have turned out. His goal this year is to put $10,000 away for his 2-year-old daughter — somewhere no one can touch it but her on her 18th birthday. Next time around, he hopes to invest half as much and double his yield.
The rain comes down harder, leaking through the tarp. “Quit working!” Tumblweed yells at Jane. “We need to button this place up!” They lodge bamboo stakes under the tarp so water will run off instead of collecting. With so much marijuana ready for sale, Tumblweed has been staying up all night to guard his stash, but he figures no one will be headed up the bumpy roads in this weather. Tonight, he is planning to get some sleep.