The New American Gold-Rush: Death of the Family Farm in the US Weed Industry

By Josef Davies

As September falls across California, seasonal travelers wait by the side of the road with cardboard signs, all heading towards the north. Many have flown over from Europe or South America to pursue ‘trimming’ work — the practice of preparing marijuana to be sold on the market. This year more than ever, a wave of people have come to follow the promise of high-profit work in the ‘Emerald Triangle’ counties of Humboldt, Mendocino and Trinity in Northern California.

Garberville in North California isn’t more than a small stretch of shops, where local organic food stores sit happily alongside countless thrift shops, yet from mid-September to late December international travelers with backpacks and guitars can be found alongside long-haired locals with well-stickered pickup trucks. Yet in this North Californian region it’s hard to underestimate just how big a part weed-farming plays in the economy and lives of the area. This world has existed for many years in a sleepy bubble of small, family owned businesses quietly growing their marijuana crop just beyond the eyes of the law, in the remote hills of Humboldt country. Yet major changes are taking place within this community that may affect how the weed industry plays out across the US in the years to come.

Family business: the small farm model.

Smaller farm bosses here have traditionally run ‘Mom and Pop’ businesses, operating in a casual way, hiring workers within the family or a very close circle of friends. It’s this small web of local connections in ‘weed world’ that shapes Humboldt life, where farm-based work accounts for a majority of jobs in these tiny towns. Everyone really knows everyone in a community where parents find their children trimming jobs and single mothers sustain families through trimming work, living and working together in remote woodland cabins for months at a time during harvest season.

Inside one farm, trimmers sit hunched over fully-stacked trays of weed, focused intently on the minutiae of a perfectly trimmed bud. With headphones plugged in and little conversation, rooms full of trimmers seek to maintain pace with a mechanical precision, taking few breaks and often eating little to continue working, as farm bosses survey their product with an eagle eye. The air is heavy with weed and the hours blend, as trimmers work late into the night in a manic focus to reach maximum profit.

Shifting market balance.

In this increasingly competitive market growers are looking for the perfect aesthetic to their buds of weed as trimmers work with thousands of dollars of merchandise, considered increasingly precious by bosses as prices drop. Growers are placing strict standards onto trimmers as they are keenly aware how low a price a badly trimmed pound of weed may sell for. “Buyers are throwing prices at me I would have laughed at a few years back, but what can I do? I’ve put my life into growing weed but there are thousands of other growers here desperate to sell their weed too. Everyone is struggling to get rid of it this year,” states Brad Michaels, a weed farmer growing here for over twenty years.

There is a strong sense of a “gold rush” taking place, as major companies enter into the industry and attempt to operate on huge levels while profit margins still exist. Smaller growers believe that this may be the last year they can viably operate within industry, as the financial balance of power has firmly flipped to the distributors of weed. As the price of a personal bag sold on the streets of major US cities remains the same, street brokers in major US cities are increasingly reaping the financial benefit. In a market where growers may have sold a pound of weed for $4,000 five years ago, prices have now dropped to $500 or lower. This is in part due to oversupply of weed production.

Megafarms: old world vs. the new.

This current spike in supply of weed has driven in part by such newer growers that have bought large swathes of land, setting up mega-farms to yield increasingly large profits. As land is bought up and developed, property prices have spiked and many have been priced out of the area, including local non-growers who have lived in such small town communities for decades. Understandably small farmers are incensed by the change, as those who have been farming here for years watch their prices plummet as the industry scales up production. There is strong sentiment that the ‘old school’ community network is being aggressively eroded by such large-scale farms with little interest in the local community. “I’ve lived here over forty years, I don’t know anything apart from growing weed. I ain’t gonna be moving nowhere” says Mike Stevens, a local farmer well into his seventies.

This community dates back to the hippies, environmentalists and ‘back to the land’ movements of the 1960s onwards. Discontent with the ways of modern life, many chose to live off the grid in the vast stretches of wild, remote forest around Humboldt, Mendocino and Trinity counties. In order to survive, some began to grow weed on a small scale. Old school growers often cite an environmental or healing ethic to their decision to enter the weed industry.

For many of the ‘back to the land’ hippies who began farming here decades ago, mega farms represent the kind of environmental destruction they despise. Large-scale farms are often logging ancient redwood forests that local activist growers have been fighting years to protect, while water supplies and fish stocks are at crisis levels as farms drain water from streams and rivers to supply their operations. Where smaller farms predominantly grow up to the quasi-legal limit of one hundred plants in California, larger farms may grow well into the thousands of plants. Local rivers represent a sacred ancestral connection to the region for Native American communities such as the Yurok, and with fish providing the basis of many livelihoods, such native communities are now being driven to a state of crisis. Due to the semi-illegal and covert nature of such farms, it is often hard to gather exact information on the scale of environmental destruction taking place.

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When speaking to smaller family-run farms the ‘us and them’ mentality towards newer farms is clear. Despite the general hippie atmosphere, there is a darker side to these remote regions, with an uncommonly high missing persons rate and easy access to drugs such as methamphetamine and heroin. Life up on the hills can be an incredibly isolating experience, as many newly rich farmers choose to indulge in hard drugs and rural hedonism to deal with the cabin-fever and boredom of full-time farming. “It’s a wild west up here, everyone is just here to make money. I’ve had bosses on meth, guns pulled on me, people have stiffed me for thousands of dollars, friends are ripping each other off who’ve known each other for years. Nothing is ever certain” says one trimmer Jack, wishing to remain anonymous.

Gathering clouds: national changes in US weed legislation.

Speculation is abound between growers with other threats to their livelihood as changing laws and major market forces reshape the industry in numerous ways. The agricultural giant Monsanto has patented their first strain of weed, leading growers to speculate that they will attempt to flood the market with modified seed strains, where small growers have traditionally used organic ‘heritage seeds’, passed down directly from generations of cultivation and human selection of the strongest traits. “Monsanto could bring [investor] confidence in the market if it were to own a large part of the exploitable lands and commercial products,” states Edmund Groensch of the Drug Policy Alliance. The introduction of such companies into the market could influence government regulation around the legalization of marijuana, with companies using their influence to lobby for legal changes in their favor.

Major companies are attempting to pave the way for a very different legalized marijuana market, in which predominantly larger-scale investors own working farms, rather than the current form in which small farmers own, grow, and sell their own weed, keeping profits between themselves and hired ‘trimmer’ labor. Land grabs have already taken place in prime weed growing areas within rural communities around California and Oregon, as financial speculators from Silicon Valley and beyond buy up fertile Californian weed-growing land.

The eyes of the law: the national picture.

For those in major farms, the weed farming industry has helped to concentrate an incredible amount of wealth in these predominantly white North-Californian communities over the last few decades, where growing smaller quantities of marijuana is now largely decriminalized and the risk of arrest is considerably lower than in previous years. In other states, such as Idaho or South Dakota, people may expect a year in prison for possession of almost any quantity, while in Louisiana growing a single marijuana plant could technically result in between five and thirty years imprisonment.

According to statistics from the American Civil Liberties Union, marijuana accounts for over half of all drug arrests in the United States. Of the 8.2 million marijuana arrests between 2001 and 2010, 88% were for possession, where black and minority communities are 3.73 times more likely than whites to be arrested for marijuana possession. Nationally speaking, in any given year U.S police arrest more people for marijuana use than for all violent crimes combined. States considering legalization may look for similar financial gains as the legalized states ‘saving hundreds of millions of dollars’, citing the $200 million spent on marijuana enforcement in Washington state between 2000 and 2010.

Legalized states: blueprints for the future?

As the first state in the world to legalize weed, Colorado paints a picture of what an officially regulated weed farming industry might look like. Growers need to comply with high standards of regulation, paying new costs to meet the official standards. It’s bad news for the ‘trimmers’ aiming for high profits, who are instead paid flat rates by the hour. This kind of legalized industry does open the possibility of more workers’ rights, in comparison to the often murky world of Californian weed farming employment in which employment rights are often few and far between.

On a government level, the Trump administration has threatened to use federal power to stem the liberalization trend within many states across the US, with attorney general Jeff Sessions comparing the drug to heroin and attempting a national crackdown. In many ways this seems to be in tension with the pro-business stance of the Trump administration, in which taxes from the recreational weed industry have reached $129 million in Colorado and $220 million in Washington. Although, in both cases this equates to less than 1 percent of total state expenditures. Nationally, however, financial industry experts are citing total weed industry takings of $9 billion in 2017, with projections of $21 billion by 2021, taking into account the rapidly expanding entry of major firms into the industry.

Disappearing tribes: the communities in-between.

Back in the isolated bubble of Californian weed life it’s still a big risk for the majority of those growing here without legal status, where armed robberies at farms are not an uncommon event. And yet as things are increasingly legalized, smaller farmers still don’t want to ‘go legal’, seeing the associated costs and taxes as unmanageable, or feeling that it gives some sort of official control over their farm and freedom. “I hope Trump does make it illegal again, then maybe we’ll be able to make some money again. I’ve lived with the risk all my life, it doesn’t mean a thing to me” says Mike Stevens.

Such transitions are causing an identity crisis for the farmers, trimmers and community that have lived here for decades. Their way of life has changed dramatically, yet for many this is the only way of life they have known, unsure of how or if to change profession and leave something they are inextricably connected to. This rare bubble of US society is in a state of great uncertainty; yet while large amounts of money are still involved, it seems unlikely the industry is going to slow down anytime soon.


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