Photo: Dave Johnson I heard about weed trimming a few years ago in Mexico. Its advocates were exactly the types you might expect; travelers, vagabonds, those who bounced around on a shoestring selling macrame jewelry or juggling in front of restaurants. The draw? Fast cash. For every pound of weed trimmed you made around $200, tax-free, cash in hand, the illegal nature of the work built in to the hefty remuneration. You go, you trim, you make bank, you leave.
Yet, I’m not a hippie, I don’t really smoke grass and I didn’t need the money. Still it held some sort of illicit allure for me. California, the mountains, marijuana… Why the fuck not? So I went.
I arrived in Garberville at night. Garberville is the pot-farming hub in Humboldt County, which, along with Mendocino and Trinity Counties, makes up The Emerald Triangle in Northern California, site of the some of the world’s largest and most sophisticated cannabis operations. And yet Garberville was a one horse town, dark and full of vagrants with mangey dogs lurking in the shadows, mumbling requests for weed or wishing me eerie welcomes. I would later learn that these nightcrawlers are called “oogles”, hobo-punks who camp in squalor beside the highways, leech off local communities and are generally considered to be a scourge on the three counties. Then there are “trimmigrants”, people from all over the world who descend on The Emerald Triangle around harvest time in search of what is euphemistically referred to as “seasonal work”. They hang around outside grocery or hardware stores, in bars, car parks or on the side of the road, armed with signs or party tricks in an attempt to cajole pot farmers into giving them a job.
I, however, already had work lined up. My friend Justin had been working as a ranch hand since May and hooked me up with the job. And after a few days in Humboldt, I was pretty glad that I hadn’t been reckless enough to show up without a contact. Sketchy shit happens to trimmers employed by random growers all the time, and because the work is against the law, if you get fucked over (or worse), you have no legal recourse. The stories are infinite and chilling; foreign trimmers getting their passports stolen, growers not paying them and throwing them off the farm, sex-starved rednecks paying more for girls to trim with their tops off, trimmers getting assaulted and some even winding up dead.
My farm was an hour away from Garberville, on top of one of the remote mountains surrounding the town. It was a safe, “mom-and-pop” type affair. The grower Dave, his wife Allie, and their daughter Carly were from Colorado and had been growing in Humboldt for three years. Some growers are hillbillies, others are hippies. In recent years surfer dudes and snowboarding bros, like Dave, have also been setting up shop in the triangle. The farm itself was big, about 100 acres with corners I never even saw and about 200 plants. Just before I got there the farm had been raided by the feds, who deploy helicopters to circle over the county, dropping their men into illegal farms to cut down their crops. This is the biggest threat; the grow-op being shut down. The red zone flickers like a laser pointer over the Emerald Triangle, flitting from one farm to another, and it’s impossible to know until the last minute if you’re in the firing line. Dave, Allie, and my friend Justin had to get the fuck out of dodge and leave the farm in the middle of the night when they heard the helis flying low overhead. They came back two days later to find half of their light dep crop razed. A blow, certainly, but better than being caught and ending up in jail.
Each trim “scene” is different; some are industrial operations, others are small-scale productions. Some put the trimmers up in houses, others in trailers. Dave and Allie lived in an apartment attached to the main barn and the trimmers brought their own tents, so I slept outside for six weeks, a mean feat for a city girl. Again, the scenes vary, and we trimmed in a big greenhouse referred to as the “trim tent”. Every trimmer had their own “station” with a camping chair, trim tray, and turkey bag. We trimmed there, cooked there, ate there and some even slept there. Seeing as getting off the mountain without a car was impossible, we would make shopping lists for Dave, who would buy us our groceries which we then kept in coolers in the trim tent.
I started trimming straight away. Once harvested, the weed is dried, cured and distributed to the trimmers, who load up their trim trays with stalks, clip off the buds and snip off the leaves until a nice, neat nug remains. Weed trimming isn’t hard, but it requires dedication and dexterity. Allie was the trim manager, teaching the newbies tricks like only spinning the bud once and keeping your trim tray tidy, and making sure everyone was trimming the bud in the same way to get a uniform product. Making $200 a pound is all well and good, but you need to trim fast and have dense, heavy buds to make any weight. You need to keep your ass in your chair for sixteen hours to make a pound out of larfy crap, compared to a bin of meaty colas that will get you twice as much weight in half the time. I rode a varied wave in my five weeks — trimming Green Crack’s tiny furballs within an inch of their life nearly drove me insane, while giving B52’s gnarly buds a haircut kept me in my chair until the wee hours, knowing every weighty nug that dropped into my turkey bag added up to a pretty penny.
But getting paid by weight can get competitive. We could run the generator in the trim tent after dark to work long into the night, unlike some scenes, which cut the trimmers off at 9pm to level the playing field. Weighing the bags became an obsession, with people timing themselves, throwing their bags on the scales after every tray they emptied, bragging about their load and goading people who took breaks, every minute out of the chair equating to the loss of precious cash. Then there’s cherry picking, or sneaking the stalks with the best buds from the collective bin for yourself. This is the cardinal sin of trimming and trimmers have been known to get kicked out of camp, ganged up on by the rest of the group, or even attacked for high-grading the buds.
Trimmers can be a prickly bunch, made up of societal fringe-livers — people who live off the grid without bank accounts, credit cards or cell phone plans, squatters, drug dealers, junkies, ex-cons. You’ll always, of course, have the hippies, people called “Moon” who talk about conspiracy theories, wear tie-dye, and doodle sacred geometries. And you’ll have the alcoholics, of whom there are plenty. The tedium of trimming necessitates distractions; the radio is king in trim camp, with Democracy Now informing everyone of goings-on in the real word. But on his grocery runs, Dave’s biggest order was always for booze, and drinking often descended into debauchery and weirdness. Two of the guys got wasted and wrestled each other inside the tent, knocking over a table and catapulting buds all over the floor, much to the annoyance of other trimmers. An older man would sip hard liquor from a flask all day and shout nonsense at everyone from the corner all night. A few of us would drink whisky chasers and dance around the tent to country music, pissing everyone off. Booze didn’t help anything and made for many awkward mornings, but it cut through the boredom.
But all the boredom is worth it when you get a day off. After a few weeks your hands are calloused, your lower back crippled, your wrists ache and all the days merge into a green haze, so much so that the spiky, conifered ridges of the Californian mountains look like lines of untrimmed buds just itching to be snipped. Trim camp consumes you and leaving the mountain to go to town for groceries, to do laundry, visit the redwoods or hang out at the beach is an almost cultural experience, shocking you back into the real world. It’s also a great excuse to get away from the other trimmers, some of whom by now you will surely want to stab in the face with your Chikamasa. Age gaps, personality clashes, class wars — tensions can fray when you’re stuck with a group of strangers in the middle of fucking nowhere for sixteen hours a day, and ultimately escape is the only thing that will save your sanity.
But eventually you will leave the mountain. Trim camp is for harvest, not for life, although there are some who squeeze the dregs out of the season well into late December at any farm that will have them. For the rest, you weight out and duck out. And this is what keeps people coming back. No matter how much of a shitshow the previous weeks of toil have been, picking up your stack of bills at the end is really what it’s all about. After five weeks, I left with just under $5k after all of my food, booze and advances had been deducted. Not bad innings for a novice trimmer who spent the latter half of her stay drinking and dancing.
But would I go back? I don’t think so. For me it was something ticked off the list, an itch scratched. I was at a safe farm with a good crew and, actually, I had a blast. But I think going back would be asking for trouble. Until weed is legalized in California, which could be as soon as this November if the Adult Use Of Marijuana Act gets passed, trimming is playing with fire. And not only is it illegal, but it’s boring and it’s labour intensive. Knowing what I know now, I’m fairly certain it was a once off. But then again, I’ll never say never.