Heart of the Emerald Triangle
In Humboldt County, California, Illegal Marijuana Camps Buoy the Economy and Influence the Culture. Who Wins, and Who Loses, If Weed Goes Legit?
The cook, whom I am going to call Dan, was having engine trouble. Fourth gear had gone limp on him, and fifth was unusable. He’d feared this day awhile now, when his aging, sun-beaten Toyota SUV started to break for real. Its previous owner had worn the truck out doing ranch work up north, near Canada, and then sold it to Dan cheap, aftermarket subwoofers included. On that ranch, Dan had plowed grain and mended fences, and after the season he had landed here, in Humboldt County, California, the marijuana-growing capital of America, if not of North America, where twice a day, six days a week, he made meals for trimmers on a big-money marijuana grow. Those trimmers, who neaten raw marijuana buds, nicknamed him “Dreamboat,” and he didn’t object.
It was a placid Sunday in October 2013, the middle of the fall harvest. Dan eased down the Mountain—“what everybody all over the world calls it,” he said, meaning the world of elite marijuana growers and their farmhands—riding neutral when he could, hoping his engine would later have enough kick to get him back up. He was headed into town to buy his farm’s weekly supply of food and drink. His budget, fourteen hundred dollars, all in twenties, sat on the dash, in an envelope labeled “Kitchen.” This allowance would be spread across several stores: restaurant suppliers, a local grocer, consumer wholesalers, and a tobacconist. Dan was a frugal shopper. He didn’t use coupons, but he knew that the price of pork loin was better at Cash & Carry than at WinCo, and that neither sold the brand of sweet butter popular with the trimmers. (That was at Safeway.) His shopping circuit would last into the evening, which was the point. If he returned to the farm before the dinner hour with a pantry of new food, he’d be expected to whip up a dish. And Sunday, contractually, was his day of rest.
Where the farm road met pavement Dan shifted out of four-wheel drive, flicked his spliff out the window. The sheriff’s office, if they were in the mood, could be suspicious of a vehicle simply for driving on the Mountain’s main road, a known high-volume marijuana trade route. Passing a Super Duty truck pulling a horse trailer empty of horses, Dan said that around here it would be surprising if the trailer wasn’t filled with weed. The Mountain, some fifty miles from the Pacific, a summit among low peaks, is passable only via private back road. Those growers who want to keep their shipments of marijuana off public roads as much as possible pay fellow growers, like Ethan, the owner and chief executive of the farm where Dan cooked, for the right to use his farm’s roads to bypass county, state, and federal throughways. The customary toll, according to Dan, is two hundred to four hundred dollars per trip. He’d collected a few of these tolls himself.
“Haul down to the gate on a quad,” he said, “open it, and the guy hands you a couple hundred bucks.” Easy money, and the wind hard on his face felt nice. Dan had opened Ethan’s land to pickups, horse trailers, cargo vans. The shipments would make their way north, to Oregon and Washington; east across taller, more-forbidding mountains, and into the American interior; and south, to lower California, Arizona, all over. Marijuana is Humboldt County’s main export; one local expert calculated that some twenty million plants a year are grown within its borders. Conservatively, five million pounds of marijuana are produced annually in Humboldt—six times the total number of pounds seized nationally by the DEA in 2012.
Last year alone, the Humboldt County Sheriff’s Office identified 4,100 marijuana cultivation sites. In a typical season, the sheriff said, his office will be able to eradicate fifty to sixty of those sites. Statistically, Dan’s boss, Ethan, had about a 2 percent chance of getting caught. He’d done his best to conceal his grow, snuggling it into the Mountain’s forbidding cap, and planting the outdoor gardens on rough narrows of the mountainside. A series of property gates protects his land, and the surrounding forest canopy is dense, providing good cover.
Even so, the threat of law enforcement raids is persistent. A few weeks before I arrived, Ethan had gotten word from the base of the Mountain that the DEA was headed his way in force. Spotter planes were making low passes overhead. “There’s always spooks in this realm,” Dan said, but this one seemed legitimate. Ethan told him to hide his gun, which Dan cased, wrapped in a trash bag, and then buried in a hollowed-out tree stump. It was an old rifle given to him by his grandfather. Although Dan lived in a dated wall tent, thin canvas the only thing separating him from the wilderness, the gun was more of a keepsake than a means of defense.
I asked Dan if he and Ethan, in what was possibly their hour of reckoning, did anything dramatic—maybe rolled up some farm fresh and enjoyed it with ceremonial finality, a goodbye shot of courage before facing the siege head-on. They didn’t, Dan said. They either carried on business as usual, or they went rafting; he couldn’t remember which, so frequent were the threats. Dan, who held an Ivy League master’s degree in creative writing, was in his second season on Ethan’s farm, and, with any luck, it would be his last. The plan was to rake in cash as both a cook and a grower, and then leave the States for a minute, head someplace where good living didn’t cost much. Take photos, write poems, finish his book. Going to prison could hamper that, Dan recognized, but this, farming pot, was a proven path to fast money.
After the warning, an hour passed without intrusion, and then another. Eventually, Ethan, part of an informal alliance of growers on the Mountain who kept each other in the loop regarding traffic, federal and otherwise, was told that the DEA squad was headed elsewhere—specifically, to the valley, where they eventually busted a grow that had more than three hundred plants in a single garden. Generous as Humboldt’s growing standards are, such a concentration of plants is considered flagrant and unignorable.
Dan waited a few days to retrieve his rifle, which a bear had found. Thinking food was inside, it had clawed off the trash bag, torn into the case, and then flung the rifle down a soggy hillside, muddying it.
“The action still works,” Dan said. “But it sat out in the rain and needs to be reblued.” For now the rifle was back at his camp, resting atop some verse.
The drop from the farm to Dan’s farthest shopping stop winds down a few thousand feet of upper California mountainscape—forests of redwood, grand fir, and madrone, stitched with fall color—and onto the coastal flat, a sheet of ocean in the distance forming a gray frame. “It’s fucking Narnia out here,” Dan told me prior to my trip out, sweetening the argument for me spending a season in Humboldt. The setting sounded like a frontiersman’s idyll, a renegade preserve run on marijuana profit. Driving up from San Francisco, I saw that Dan wasn’t overstating it. Public Humboldt makes a powerful impression on the viewer, private Humboldt even more so. Some of the vistas on Ethan’s farm look staged, like compilations of mountain sceneries, all very pretty, lined up in panoramic excess.
Dan drove along, saying little, keeping an ear on his struggling engine. Already he anticipated a hefty repair bill, another unforeseen expense to add to a run of recent misfortune. His cook pay had just been cut, and worse, his microgrow had been contaminated with male pollen, which ruined a number of female plants with seed. Sensimilla marijuana—virgin female plants that grow large, dense, resinous buds to better trap pollen but that never actually trap it—are far more desirable than seeded weed, which is a bother to pick through and not as potent: the plant, once pollinated, turns its attention toward nurturing the seed and away from producing THC, the stuff that gets you high. Dan had sold the compromised buds from his microgrow at a deep discount but was soon forced to buy it all back.
“She knew what she was getting,” he said of his buyer, who kept the seeded marijuana for almost a week before complaining that she couldn’t move it. Deal’s a deal, he thought, but Ethan, not wanting to upset a longtime client, forced Dan to buy it back. On the farm, Ethan’s rule was omnipotent. He was supervisor when Dan cooked, lender when he needed a loan to start his own patch, and sole distributor when Dan sold. “It’s a little fiefdom,” Dan said. As salt in the wound, the boss’s crop was coming in strong, again. “Guy’s never had a bad year. His neighbors quietly hate him.”
Ethan is a physical man: early thirties, tallish and lean, his fitness attributable to a career that requires the chiseling of marijuana orchards into mountainside. He has a thin, kempt beard and doesn’t get cold the way normal people do.
This year his goal was to sell more pot than last year but not so much that the feds took notice. Here, at mid-harvest, he was positioned to produce between twelve hundred and fifteen hundred pounds of prime buds, which sold on the black market at fifteen hundred dollars per pound. Minus overhead—the trimmers’ labor costs, the note on his property, raw materials, equipment maintenance, fuel, food—Ethan himself stood to clear well over a million dollars. This for six months’ work, summer through autumn, and for assuming the sort of risk that might win him half a lifetime in federal prison.
“In ten years, the growing landscape will look completely different,” Ethan said. “The weed bubble is bursting. Government’s tired of not making any money on this thing. But until then, we’re going to keep turning it out.” A recent California Board of Equalization report estimated that the state could take in as much as a hundred million dollars in annual medical marijuana tax receipts—a not-insignificant number, but a fraction of the fourteen billion dollars’ worth of weed produced in California every year. The state tax rate on medical marijuana is 5 percent. At a hundred million dollars in revenue, then, the board is saying that it expects to collect on only two billion dollars of the state’s fourteen-billion-dollar industry. The black market, on which Ethan sells exclusively, is six times larger than the regulated one.
And as long as that sun is shining, Ethan plans to make hay. This year he brought on a busload of trimmers to process his crop, more than the farm had hosted in harvests past. Each of them was a liability. For some, just being in the US was a crime, much less working on a marijuana grow. Ethan needed them, though, this skilled, freelance labor force willing to live off the grid in service of his farm’s flagship strain, “Longshot.” As described by one veteran trimmer, Longshot was a smooth smoke. And dependable: every time, it hoisted the spirit high. With each harvest the Longshot recipe was refined, the buds gaining potency as a result of generational pure breeding. Confident in his process, Ethan seemed unconcerned that his female plants—“Morning, girls” is a common greeting to the farm’s gardens—might catch seed or otherwise underperform. Nurtured to majority in an ideal growing environment, Longshot was a patrician strain. Ethan’s farm was his life’s work and laboratory, one in which the variables, excepting the weather, were controlled with scientific stubbornness.
Since 1996, Californians with the right doctors’ notes have had legal clearance to grow and possess pot. That year, Proposition 215, a voter initiative granting limited immunity from prosecution to “seriously ill” residents whose health conditions might be improved by the use of the drug, passed on a statewide ballot. In 2003, Senate Bill 420 upheld the law, and added a handy medical marijuana ID card program (to date, nearly seventy-two thousand cards have been issued). Neither the proposition nor the senate bill superseded federal law, however; as such, raids on growers and dispensaries carried out by federal agents were frequent from 1996 until March 2009, when Attorney General Eric Holder announced that marijuana grows and storefronts complying with state law would not be a priority for the Obama administration.
In the wake of the proposition, twenty states and the District of Columbia passed medical marijuana legislation. Colorado and Washington recently went a step further by permitting recreational use. While traditionally conservative states have been slow to relax harsh punishments for possession (in Kansas, holding any amount of marijuana—even a single gram—can earn the offender up to a year in prison), it’s clear that blue America is trending toward legalization.
Ethan’s farm was backed by several medical marijuana licenses, all California issued, a couple of which belonged to farmhands who were actually living and working on the grow. Huge announcement boards reading MEDICAL were placed near the gardens, faceup, so that a spotter-plane pilot could see them. Taped to these boards were the licenses themselves. According to Brianna, the farm’s co–harvest manager (she splits the duty with her husband, Dario), they were no longer current.
“Licenses don’t really matter, anyway,” she said. “If the state or the feds busted us, they’d look at plants and pounds, not the number of medical users who don’t live on the farm.”
Officers could also argue that Ethan’s plants, per the letter of the law, are much too healthy. Humboldt strictures cap the number of plants allowed per medical user at ninety-nine. “Ninety-nine, you’re fine,” goes the growers’ jingle. If you cultivate the maximum, though, the diameter of each plant’s canopy can’t exceed one foot. Seriously ill residents have their choice of growing a whole field of dainty plants or a handful of mammoths, but, either way, to stay legal they can’t have more than ninety-nine square feet of marijuana canopy. An average Longshot specimen has colas—the crowns of the marijuana plant—that, when combined, stretch four feet across, with torsos twice that size. In terms of yield, probably one of Ethan’s plants hit the ceiling on medical, Brianna told me; if this was true, the farm was over the limit by 749 plants.
And yet California, long the marijuana movement’s pacesetter, and a haven for high-capacity growers, finds itself in the perhaps-unwelcome position of losing outlaws like Ethan. Should the state follow Colorado’s and Washington’s leads in legalizing recreational use, as is expected, already-fragile economies in the north—specifically in the “Emerald Triangle” of Mendocino, Humboldt, and Trinity counties, home to some quarter of a million people—could be crippled. The “prohibition premium” that keeps marijuana prices, and those economies, aloft would fall, possibly so precipitously that many growers would lose their incentive and (perhaps ironically) leave for more-punitive regions. In recent years, many growers have reportedly left California for places like Wisconsin and North Carolina—markets where a pound of marijuana might fetch double what it does in the Golden State. Legalization helps keep growers out of jail, but regulation slashes their profit margins.
Though Ethan and his ilk do business under the table, denying the state any transactional revenue, they do pay sizable property-tax bills, invest heavily in local construction, auto, and equipment businesses, and employ seasonal laborers by the thousands, paying them in cash, plenty of which gets spent locally. Growers also hand guys like Dan kitchen envelopes every week, with large portions of that cash earmarked for area food farms and grocers.
If California doesn’t fully legalize, criminal growers will further exploit the system, along with the state’s depleted water supply, and in the end lose ground to the new pot frontier anyway. Prices have and will continue to drop, said Graham, who’s part of the administration on Ethan’s farm.
“A few years ago you got twenty-two hundred dollars a pound for good outdoor,” he said. “Then Colorado and Washington did their thing and it came down to eighteen hundred.” That decline resulted from the threat, rather than the reality, of an oversupplied market, as Colorado didn’t allow the selling and taxing of recreational marijuana until January 1, 2014 (Washington State dispensaries are expected to begin selling to recreational users this month).
“This year it’s fifteen hundred [dollars a pound],” Graham said. Next year, it would drop to twelve, he predicted.
Despite these headwinds, most trimmers and growers I spoke with—aside from Ethan, who’s bearish—don’t believe Humboldt will lose the crown anytime soon. Other states might offer legislative advantages regarding the consumption of marijuana, but Humboldt has a history of producing the stuff, the infrastructure to continue doing so, and a culture that values growers. The comparison has been made to tobacco-growing in colonial-era North Carolina. Here, growing marijuana is a livelihood, not a lifestyle. New laws in Colorado and Washington didn’t achieve such an atmosphere overnight, goes the argument, nor did they diminish Humboldt’s marijuana-growing tradition.
Since the early ’70s, when growing began to replace a foundering timber industry in Humboldt, reliance on the marijuana economy has only increased. By 2012, it was thought that marijuana accounted for one billion of the county’s four-billion-dollar economy. During my stay, I don’t remember seeing a clothing store, bookstore, supermarket, bar, restaurant, supply shop, gas station, repair shop, pharmacy, or burrito shack that wasn’t patronized by someone with direct ties to a pot farm. You could smell the skunk, see the twenties. In parking lots, souped-up grower trucks growled by—mostly Toyotas, a status symbol in Humboldt. Somewhere along the way, that back-to-the-land exodus begun in San Francisco some forty years ago, when poor hippies left the city and went north, into the woods, in search of a simpler, cheaper life, their own piece of Arcadia on which food and intoxicants alike could be grown, to offer a thumbnail history—somewhere along the way, that movement morphed into a thriving industry.
Farm-bound on the county’s main artery, Dan stopped for gas on tribal land. Inside the service station was a closet of brightly lit slot machines. He fed a penny-slot five bucks and won it back fifty times over. A break! I’d run out of ways to express concern for his money problems and was happy to see good luck find him.
With the shopping finished, Dan drove his struggling 4Runner up the Mountain gently, unable to match the speed limit on straightaways. At the outer property gate, he opened two beers, an indication we’d reached private land. Ethan owned a patchwork of the Mountain, the total acreage of which couldn’t be verified. Questions like that—How much land do you own, Ethan, when all the phantom leases are taken into account? Where and to whom to do you sell these bales of Longshot? How’d you know that that plane circling overhead yesterday was Cal Fire and not the law?—were frowned upon. Ethan likes conversation but talking business with strangers isn’t his thing. Guests of the farm don’t need to know high-level details unless they are hard-news journalists or undercover cops, two equally inconvenient scenarios for Ethan. Although I was there in neither capacity, the trimmers still nicknamed me “Narc.” They were only sort of joking. It was easy to overstep and turn yourself, in the opinion of the staff, into a threat. But to make any sense of Humboldt and the subculture behind the Redwood Curtain—which seems like an extra-American community or, maybe more accurately, a community that, owing to a concerted lack of governmental oversight, has been allowed to shape itself in the style of the storied Old West—one has to ask the dumb questions, the ones that prove outsiderness. One must also tune in to the trimmer gossip (known as “chisme”), and hope for the kindness of someone like Dan, who was willing to lay out the farm’s architecture for me. Even then, on Ethan’s land the taking of notes and pictures is forbidden. Conversations can’t be recorded. At night, though, in the privacy of a tent, one can write down outlines, remembered quotes, farm schema. Sometimes the Longshot fog warps memory, blurring the day’s sequence of events. Other times, maybe there’s a photo, always furtively taken and rarely in focus, to jog the memory.
Dan’s Toyota labored up steep grades, trunk heavy with food: crates of hemp milk, a twenty-two-pound hunk of sirloin, peeled garlic, a pail of it, and tempeh steaks for the vegetarians, among plenty else. The climb was bumpy. Water-bars, bulldozed into place and designed to channel storm runoff, roughened the way. Ethan had cut these roads himself, with help from Rob, a devoted deputy with a passion for security enforcement. Rob and Ethan go way back to the elite East Coast high school Ethan barely graduated from. He was a bright student more focused on selling pot than on academics. Ethan saved money and, in his early twenties, bought a small parcel in Humboldt—“the First Forty,” those acres are called. With each successful harvest, Ethan purchased additional land, resulting in the gerrymandered section of the Mountain that today produces enough premium marijuana each harvest to pave five city blocks with a line of footlong bricks.
Ethan’s expansion acreage simultaneously increased grow-space and lowered his exposure. Instead of crowding an only slightly illegal number of plants onto forty acres, he could now spread several hundred plants across multiple gardens miles apart. The conscientious grower’s goal, inconspicuousness, was accomplished. From the air his property appeared to be dotted with modest, separate cultivation sites that, to the authorities, would appear insignificant. (Another grower in the valley had in a single garden the number of plants Ethan disperses across six.)
The foundation laid and the farm flush with untaxed money, Ethan relocated his central command to a shallow bowl on the Mountain where Rob had built a yurt—a fat, flattened teepee raised on stilts. More land meant more plants, which meant more trimmers. Two dozen could cram into the yurt, working and eating and dancing and smoking. There was a clear plastic dome in the roof, too coated with marijuana particulate to give you a decent look at the sky. To help keep the trimmers dry, Rob constructed wooden platforms for their tents. He installed separate waterlines, cleaved roads linking the old property with the new, framed an outhouse so as to avoid the septic grid, and mounted solar panels that decreased reliance on generator power. Vegetable gardens were planted: cabbage, carrot, delicata squash, mustard greens. Trash that couldn’t be composted was either burned or collected for drop-off at a private landfill.
Construction on the farm continues today. Not long after Dan’s Sunday run, one of Rob’s handymen shot himself with a nail gun while piecing together a secondary outhouse. The nail entered his upper knee and nearly drove out the shin. Reluctantly, the man was taken to a hospital.
“He doesn’t have health insurance,” Rob told me. “He’s got Ethan.”
The man returned within the week, limping, to trim.
Sitting in lawn chairs, workers ringed the yurt’s inner perimeter. Plastic trash-can lids were placed upside down on their laps, heaped with shaggy buds. There was the shk shk shk of tiny scissors at work. The air was humid with a microclimate of marijuana.
Most of the farmhands are college-educated, multilingual, and have or have had jobs in more-professional spheres. The hasher—who collects the farm’s leaves and the shake, the un-smokable parts of the marijuana plant, and converts them, using a proprietary chemistry, to medical-grade hash—was, like Dan, an Ivy League graduate. One trimmer, an accomplished guitar player, took time off from the grow to fly to China and record with a symphony there. More and more-obscure honors could be listed, but that would only affirm that this is a group of people, some of them very interesting, who sit in an elaborate hut in the middle of the woods and style marijuana and listen to music and talk beyond the point of having anything to talk about. They do this day and night, harvest after harvest.
In late May, Ethan readies his soil for planting. His homebrew fertilizer includes bone meal, crushed oyster shells, Azomite, calcium phosphorous, and manure. Young marijuana shoots, or starts, that have been growing in a greenhouse are transferred outdoors to cryptically named gardens: Honeymoon, Africa, Rattlesnake, Tom’s. There the plants are fed, watered, and monitored for signs of herming, the drifting from female to male. In the gardens, male plants are the worst case: they produce no consumable marijuana, and, if a seed pops, as happened in Dan’s microgrow, any female within range can become pollinated. If the federal government was really interested in putting a dent in California’s outdoor growth, one trimmer told me, all they’d have to do is blanket the region with pollen, dropping it from the air like fire retardant.
Ethan doesn’t use pesticides or fungicides, and the watering, as I understood it, is done by schedule, not need: he grows organic marijuana, a potential competitive advantage. As pot becomes more mainstream, especially in Colorado and Washington, where the climate is not as conducive to natural outdoor growth, consumers will require more source information about what they’re ingesting. (Because marijuana, like heroin, is classified as a Schedule I drug by the federal government, the FDA and the USDA can’t police it.) Many, it’s thought, will pay up for organic—the Whole Foods recreational-user set. The market could invert. Today, quality indoor-grown marijuana costs more than outdoor-grown, as having total control over the plant’s environment usually translates to more-potent buds, and most enthusiasts prize potency above all else. New usage freedoms bring new customers, though, and Ethan is betting that a lot of them will prefer “sun-grown” and “clean green” strains over, say, Platinum Bubba Kush—the Lucky Charms to his Shredded Wheat.
Come fall, the mature plants that survive are harvested. Stalks are sheared off, hung to dry, bucked (the removal of water-leaves and branches), and then trimmed. The end result: dense, sticky, street-ready nuggets with notes of purple in their coloration. Longshot. The best are dusted with what’s called sugar, tiny white resinous glands—trichomes—that are a source of THC, the psychoactive constituent responsible for Longshot’s spiritual hoisting. Longshot smells minty, peaty, like damp cedar mulch and fir needles, which is to say it smells like choice marijuana.
Early in this season, a storm system dropped on Humboldt, dumping heavy rain on Ethan’s grow and forcing the farmhands to harvest some gardens prematurely. Weather is expected to destroy at least 5 percent of each crop, Dario, the farm’s other co–harvest manager (and Brianna’s husband), told me. This storm, he said, had the potential to double that percentage. “We were out in the gardens shaking the plants,” Dario said. “Full rain gear, shake shake shake. If you don’t do this, the plants mold and mildew.”
Dario is a bulky Italian who’d nearly been fired over the summer, for laziness, but was able to recommit himself and thus far turn out a robust crop. Fourteen hundred pounds is a significant achievement in Humboldt, monumental anyplace else. (In defense of his work ethic, Dario said: “If I am given nine hours to chop down the tree, I spend eight hours sharpening my ax.”) Still, rumor was that Ethan had no intention of bringing him back next year. The two clashed. Dario preferred directness to suggestion, and Ethan, who’d adopted the California habit of curling statements into questions, wielded his authority propositionally. He issued soft directives like “Maybe the burn barrel”—in which un-smokable and un-hashable plant parts are destroyed—“should be burning more often?,” a remark intended to prompt trimmers to gather more stalks for the fire.
One morning, Dario invited me out with the harvest crew. Dan encouraged the trip, saying, “Do it. Go commit a felony.” In the back of another creaky Toyota, I rode with a group of trimmers—on this day, in charge of harvesting—to the farm’s largest garden, Honeymoon. It was sown with ninety-nine plants, of which about thirty remained, standing as tall and full as trophy Christmas trees. The deforested side had been picked clean, rows of bare stumps poking out of the ground like stubble.
Honeymoon was precision cut into the mountainside, with little buffer between it and the forest proper. Now breaking the tree line, the sun burned off a sharp morning chill. Harvesters traded jackets and scarves for tools: gardener gloves, scissors, shears, loppers, and empty black trash cans.
Sarah, a farm freshman and earnest mystic, preferred to harvest barefoot. Direct connection with the soil strengthened her bond with the plants, she said, helping her better appreciate the life cycle of the buds, their past, present, and future, because they, too, have a story to tell—not in words but in appearance (color, texture, size, shape) and later in essence, when their journey concludes in the mind’s eye of some lucky human. Sarah was generous with her time and a fierce defender of an anagogic spirituality: she was Hollywood’s idea of the kind of person found on a pot farm. She’d exhausted Brianna and Dario and yet remained a staple on Team Harvest, shepherding buds six days a week.
This being Honeymoon’s final harvest, the crew razed it. They took anything that looked trimmable, regardless of ripeness. By break—granola, oranges, a pipe loaded with fresh Longshot—it was sixty-five degrees out. The bottoms of Sarah’s feet were brown with resin, small, chewed-raisin gobs of it on her insteps. “People would pay good money to smoke that,” someone said.
Dan’s truck was now sitting in a trough short of the yurt, out of the way. A long-haired mechanic working out of a station wagon, a man who felt that nowadays cars were manufactured instead of built, told Dan that his engine was scrap and that he should start salvaging parts now, before the winter. The stereo and subwoofers, it was thought, might be worth more than the 4Runner.
Ethan was unconvinced by the mechanic. “That guy’s sort of a burnout?” he said. But before that, to Dan (who is not only his cook but the primary conduit through which he communicates hospitality to his staff) Ethan said something like “Aw, man, that sucks! You’re not gonna make any money this year.” Sometimes Ethan seemed to forget that he was a father, the owner and chief executive of what could be classed as a small business, and a millionaire. Or maybe he simply liked to blend a little tone-deafness into his managerial style. Whatever the case, Ethan’s comment was a reminder that for all the back-to-the-land feel-goodness at Longshot Farms, the warm and welcoming community of tender souls gathered here in Narnia, the grow is at its core an expression of capitalism. Pay gaps are consistent with that of an American corporation, with Ethan taking home some two hundred times what his average trimmer, the rank-and-file employee, does. The administrative tier—Rob, Brianna, and Dario, the trim-scene supervisor, and to some extent Dan—receive, in addition to salary, bonuses tied to production, a token form of equity. And at the labor level, trimmers work for their wages with no claim on or responsibility for the farm’s bottom line.
His first season, Dan didn’t mind the setup. The more you work the more you make, he said, and “it also helped that the trimmers nicknamed me Dreamboat, they loved the food I cooked, we had parties all the time, and there were more hot single girls.”
He’d been the cool kid at what the farmhands call the “bougiest” trim scene in Humboldt. After visiting other farms in the area, I tended to agree. At Ethan’s farm the trimmers listened to NPR podcasts and didn’t shy away from informed debates about foreign policy, François Hollande, agroecology, the flacks Elvis trusted. They told smart jokes. In the outhouse you found current issues of the New Yorker and Utne Reader alongside outdoorsy magazines featuring shirtless men interfacing with nature. On the farm, anything less than an environmentalist’s zeal for conserving resources was frowned upon. On Sundays, wildlife walks were encouraged, sometimes led by Ethan. And attached to the yurt was a functioning shower, a Humboldt extravagance.
By contrast, at another trim scene on the Mountain, I saw a band of gypsies doing real drugs in order to stay awake and trimming for hours on end.
“That’s why Ethan can pay what he does,” Dan said. “Trimmers here make a hundred and seventy-five dollars a pound.” The going rate in the Triangle is two hundred dollars per pound of trimmed buds. “Over a season that [difference] might cost them thousands, but the living here is so superior that people line up for it.”
As with most Humboldt trim scenes, Ethan’s employees bear no out-of-pocket expenses. They live on the land rent-free, either in tents or, if they’ve accumulated seniority, mini yurts. The food, drink, and smoke (all the marijuana they want, and a fair amount of tobacco) are covered. Trimmers set their own hours. They also eat well, as Dan throws together mean dinners on the budget he is allotted: $2.22 per person per meal.
“Lots of other scenes are a trudge,” Melanie, who’s worked for various growers, told me. “But this is like camp.”
Last year, Dan would have agreed. But this year he’d soured on it. His boss had bought a house, a Sno-Cat, and a backhoe, “and when I tell him my truck’s broken,” Dan said, “he says, ‘That sucks’?”
Down the Mountain, a celebration was in full swing, part birthday party and part toast to the harvest gods, who all season long had blessed the grow with lucre and anonymity. The town features an intersection, post office, supply store, limited grocery, and the bar where Ethan and company were strapping it on. Earlier, a six-piece mariachi band bussed up from the coast had played through dinner and then indulged the trimmers with a dancing session. The mood was festive. Tomorrow being a school day, Ethan ducked out at a responsible hour, a stack of twenties on the table in his stead. The night was cold and windless; jackets hung on the backs of chairs; the crew stood outside in a circle smoking, free hands in pockets for warmth.
Not participating in the party was Greg, a grower neighbor. Swaying on his barstool, a tree stump glazed with lacquer, a memento from the area’s timber days, Greg warned of the doom that would befall Ethan if he didn’t fly his grow closer to the ground. “He’s too fucking big,” Greg said, an announcement posing as a confidential statement to Dan. “I see five, six cars of his go up and down the Mountain every day. If I see, cops see.” That activity was drawing the law close; Greg could feel it. Either Ethan would mute his operation or it would get muted for him, was the message.
There is a term used in the Triangle, hipneck, which means a combination of a hippie and a redneck—a strange marriage of types, considering that the former is associated with large-hearted indolence, the latter with blue-collar bigotry. The hipneck at his best is a passionate and single-minded guardian of the Northern California open-minded ethos. He’s independent, in a libertarian sense: a keeper of the land but not of his fellow grower.
“Greg’s not worried about a bust,” Dan said; rather, Greg was resentful of Ethan, who might outearn him tenfold over the course of a season. Regardless, it was no reason to ruin good revelry. Dan hadn’t had to cook dinner; the trimmers were getting hammered. There were maybe thirty-five patrons in the bar, thirty of whom would sleep on Ethan’s land that night. It was the same group partying the same way they would have back at the yurt, but down here, with the smallest of audiences, things got amplified, like the first night of shore leave my grandfather used to talk about, a sea-weary squadron reacquainting itself with civilization.
Later, Dario and Brianna squabbled in the parking lot, surrounded by majestic Toyotas, their door handles gummed with resin. The moon turned some distant ridge elegant. There was a forest that backed up to the bar, the gnarled dark of it, an untrodden path in there, one sensed, that led to another bar, like this one but mountains away, with some other trim team there doing the same shit.
My final night on the Mountain, a burly green government truck marked FOREST SERVICE showed up unannounced. The driver parked in front of the yurt, blocking most of the exit, and he and his passenger sat motionless in the cab, as if awaiting backup. Their truck bed was equipped with firefighting tackle, the roof with a law-enforcement light-bar. For the moment the light-bar remained inactive—a sign, it seemed, that whatever this was, it wasn’t yet a raid.
The twosome couldn’t see much of the garden nearest their truck, as it sloped away toward the creek, but the yurt was apparent, just then bloated with trimmers trimming and those trying to rally support for a party: a loud, crowded evening. The harvest was nearly finished, which was reason either to celebrate or to keep working long after dinner. Ethan was in the mix as well, a rarity. He’d dropped off a fresh keg and, instead of returning to his shop—the bottom floor is a vault of marijuana stalks hanging to dry; the top floor, his loft—bucked trend and poured himself a beer. He stood in the center of the yurt holding court with his staff. Telling stories, touching people on the shoulder buddy-buddy. In moments like these, when Ethan went into friend mode, you could see the high-schooler who’d sold weed to make money but more so to gain proximity to the school’s nobility. It was in his delivery, this unsure youth: Ethan would hazard a joke and immediately scan the room, eyes darting, the reactions of others dictating his own.
Dario interrupted the session—“Someone is here I do not know”—and directed his boss outside. Ethan brushed himself clean of marijuana ort, the loose buds that lodge in shoe treads, the leaves and shake, which attach to clothing. Over the life of his farm, now in its second decade, zero uninvited vehicles had gotten past the sequence of metal property gates protecting his land. “No traffic, ever,” Graham, a veteran, said. To get to the yurt, the Forest Service would have had to cut gate locks and navigate a tangle of rugged dirt roads, none of which show up on standard mapping software.
Greg’s drunken threat, now weeks old, was brought up. It was possible that jackass had reported them. If anything, Ethan had raised the volume on Greg by calling in reserve trimmers. So congested was his farm now that late-to-dinner staff found no chairs, no stumps. They ate standing up, like horses.
While Ethan spoke with the men in the Forest Service truck, the trimmers traded Mountain wisdom:
“Perhaps they’re undercover.” (This remark encouraged a few narc jokes.)
“They aren’t undercover; they’re idiots. Lots of growers around here would approach that truck with gun in hand.”
“Ethan’s doing it right. You don’t lead with aggression.”
“Those guys are scared to get out of the truck. They’re outnumbered fifteen to one.”
“One of the Mexicans ran off into the woods, to hide, I guess. Pretty cold out there.”
And then came the actual news, as told by Ethan: the twosome was a fire crew who’d gotten lost. In pursuit of a brushfire far away, they’d found one of his property gates that had been left open by a careless neighbor, entered his land, and followed the grow road here, hoping they’d lucked out and discovered an unmapped shortcut. Ethan said he would escort them out. As a courtesy he called a grower living on the far side of the Mountain and told the man a federal problem would soon be driving through his backyard.
After the suspect fire crew drove away, the trimmers, first thing, lit a massive bonfire. Whole trees were burned, barrel after barrel of marijuana stalks, a moldering porch Ethan had gotten tired of looking at. Flames reached second-story height, demanding a wide neutral zone.
Talk between the trimmers was of postseason plans, the next harvest, their flights to Bali, the Mexican heartland, Stockholm, Normandy, northern Oregon. Some were considering a winter term in Colorado, to get in on the recreational-use ground floor. Marijuana-advocate websites were posting scores of job opportunities there for trimmers, bud-tenders, and plant-care technicians. Besides me, no one staying in the country was heading east of the Mississippi. The farther one got from a marijuana-based economy, the more taboo that economy seemed: bandit farmers growing free-range marijuana, wages paid in black-market cash, commune-style living—none of that was an easy sell.
Dan wasn’t sorted out yet, but he knew he wouldn’t be coming back next year, and that as soon as he got paid he and his truck would be leaving the farm. The 4Runner would live on, it turned out. Dan had taken it to a capable repair shop where he was quoted a ninety-seven-dollar fix, total. Nothing was wrong with the engine, despite what the long-haired mechanic had said; the issue was with parts connecting to the engine. Dan could pick the truck up tomorrow if he wanted.
Hearing this, Ethan, back from showing the Forest Service off-base, said, “See! I told you you can’t trust stoners.”
Illustration by Tony Millionaire
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