Life of a Cannabis Trimmer

The new girls got in late last night and are all up at seven, being led around the dusty grounds of the property in the early morning sun. They are still dressed in their city clothes—tight jeans and cute shoes—and as they shuffle across the dirt and dry gravel they talk excitedly to one another, shielding their eyes as the bright sun slides slowly over the mountain, already coming up to punish us.

This time of year, new girls are constantly coming to the property. It’s mid-July in southern Humboldt County, and the first round of the year’s marijuana harvest—all one thousand pounds of it—is hanging in the sheds or newly dried in contractor bags and cardboard boxes, ready for us to start trimming into perfect, salable little nuggets. From now until Christmas, we’ll trim 16 hours a day, every day. We’ll sit the whole time, break sparingly for food, and only get up to the go to the bathroom when we absolutely must. We’ll smoke constantly and increasingly. Even with 30 of us, we’ll be pushing to get it all done before the end of the year.

The new girls are new; they don’t know any of this yet. But I’ve worked in enough of these scenes to know that as far as trimming weed goes, this place is as good as it gets.

I call our place the Farm, though it isn’t ours: It’s Jim’s*. Jim’s farm is two hours from the nearest city, 90 minutes from a gas station or a grocery store, at the end of a long logging road high in the coastal mountain range of Northern California. It’s hard to get to; there isn’t much local traffic save for the occasional work rig running bags of soil up the gravel road to one of the dozens of other grows in our little neighborhood. No highway patrol cars would bother to cruise in this far, which is a relief because Jim grows his weed illegally. There’s no phone service and no internet. Most nights the only sounds you can hear are wind, coyotes, and the white noise of generators.

Down on the county road, or way out on the freeway, dozens of other newcomers are flooding Northern California looking for a place just like ours: travelers; hitch-hikers; retirees; packs of grease-dark, train-hopping kids; hippie couples holding cardboard signs with only a pair of scissors drawn on them. “Trimmigrants,” the locals grumble.

I feel lucky to be here, even if I am breaking the law.
Regardless of the fact that the majority of growers in Humboldt County are operating illegally, thousands of seasonal workers come from all over the world to work in the marijuana capital of the US during harvest season, risking jail time and felony charges to build a little nest-egg with untaxed, unregulated income. Even to me, the risk seems worth it. I feel lucky to be here, even if I am breaking the law.

I see the new girls turning now, walking up the dirt hill toward me in a little cluster; they’re still shielding their eyes from the bright morning sky. From up on the deck, I watch them taking in the water tanks and the four-wheelers, the massive pile of our garbage set away to rot in a little clearing of trees. I remember being new, and trying to understand. When they look up at me, I smile and wave.

Even though I was born and raised in Humboldt County, I never thought I would end up trimming weed. When I graduated from college in 2008 the American economy had just collapsed, and I became part of the first wave of students to enter a recession-impacted workforce. Funding for arts, education, and the environment disappeared. Unable to find a job with my environmental sustainability degree, I asked a friend from high school if he knew of any farm work I could pick up—”farm” being code, in many parts of Northern California, for cannabis.

He offered me a job at the property he was working at in southern Humboldt County, a remote region with a dry Mediterranean climate famous for its weed production. He explained that I’d get to stay out there for free and make 20 bucks an hour under the table, just watering and transplanting the crops. When the weed was harvested, I could stay on and trim if I wanted to. “Everyone does it out here,” he assured me. “It’s no big deal.” I was sold. The next week, I packed my life into my car and headed north, telling myself I’d only stay until I could figure out what was next.

The job was a dream in many ways; I worked long days outside, slept in a cabin, and had plenty of time to read and write. I met Jim there; he was just someone’s boyfriend then, setting up another farm a few miles down the road. My friend was right: Everyone did seem to grow out there. Even still, there was a general uneasiness in the valley, a feeling of mild danger that permeated an otherwise peaceful lifestyle.

Back then, legalization wasn’t as imminent as it is now; federal raids were real and constant threats. Though some growers had the medical paperwork to legitimize their plants in California, it wasn’t uncommon, or illegal, for the Feds to bust them. Because of this, lots of growers wouldn’t even bother getting permits; they just took their chances, like Jim did. While we were remote enough that I felt relatively safe, we still froze whenever a black helicopter would fly low through the valley. Jim carried a pistol in his belt at all times. “If shit goes down,” he would tell me, “just start running.” I nodded, trying not to think about the fact that I had no place to run to.

After a month of this, the paranoia wore me down. I wasn’t able to tell my friends or family where I was, or much about what I was doing, for fear of being judged, punished, or reported. My parents considered me a lost cause. I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was endangering myself by staying there—that eventually I’d be arrested, or worse. Mostly, though, I was 22 years old and haunted by a desire to find work that was meaningful. I was alone in the mountains, outside of society, drinking, smoking and never reading the news. I stayed at the property a few more weeks and then took my cash to Portland, hoping to get back on track, and hoping that the job market had improved a little in my absence.

It hadn’t. If anything, it seemed like there were fewer jobs when I left the Farm. I spent the next winter and spring barely making my rent—scraping together babysitting gigs, doing stints at shitty restaurants, and sending out hundreds of applications that were never answered. When early summer rolled around, just as I was debating having to move back home, I got a text from Jim: “u lookin for work?”

I was.

I went to Jim’s new farm to trim that season, and I’ve returned to Humboldt County to trim nearly every season since. Every year I tell myself it’s not worth it: It’s too remote; it’s too dangerous; it interferes with my ability to further my education or start a career. But there are aspects of the job that I like; I can remember them when spring rolls around. I remember the smell of the hot woods, the satisfying ache of manual labor, and how good it feels to be handed a thick roll of bills when the job is done. I remember that I actually love it, or at least the freedom it gives me. As a trimmer, I can make enough money in a few months to supplement my income for the rest of the year. It’s the only way I’ve been able to support my music or art projects, and the only reason I have a savings account at all.

Still, being a trimmer carries a certain amount of stigma along with it. The media portrayal of the marijuana industry showcases social reform, progressive activism, and female empowerment, but out on the farms things feel much different. The gender roles are distinct and historic: Men grow, women trim. While the men are fixtures—usually property owners—the women are interchangeable, expendable labor. Locals will regularly refer to the girlfriends of weed farmers as “grow hoes” or “potstitutes,” two widely-acknowledged rural archetypes suggesting that women in the weed industry do nothing but receive unearned benefits from their male partners. But even women who work experience blatant sexism; I’ve frequently heard my co-workers referred to dismissively as “trim bitches,” and more than once was offered an extra 50 bucks a pound to trim topless—a practice that, while not quite the norm, is certainly more prevalent than it should be.

The gender imbalance is embedded in the work. Simply put: The outdoor work is for men and the indoor work, the trimming, is for women. “I was given only the lightest tasks,” my friend Emily* recalled when I asked about her experience. She came to Humboldt County from New England in 2008, looking to spend the summer working on a weed farm. She left frustrated and disillusioned. “They regarded me as a helpless little woman and, naturally, after a while I started to feel like one,” she said.

More than once was offered an extra 50 bucks a pound to trim topless.
At every trim scene I’ve been to, the majority of trimmers I’ve met and worked with have been women. I’ve heard men justify this separation of labor by saying things like, “your fingers move faster than ours” or “you’re better at sitting still.” In reality, trimming is tedious, difficult, boring, and absolutely necessary work. While the growers don’t want to do this work, they still need their buds trimmed in order to sell their product. This, I believe, is why a term like “trim bitch” could exist in the first place. It’s a way to devalue a woman’s labor, even as it’s actively depended upon. It’s also a reminder that if you aren’t pulling your weight, there are countless other girls who can take your place.

“Hay que cortarlos como asi,” Flor* explains, holding an untrimmed bud of marijuana between two chipped turquoise fingernails. Flor is Jim’s wife, a beautiful 24-year-old Colombian girl whose job is to break the new girls in. In her right hand Flor holds a pair of garden shears, rotating the bud gently as she snips away the dried water leaves that cling to the nug. “Eso, eso, eso, eso, y ya,” she says as she holds the finished trimmed bud in front of a girl’s face; the girl nods solemnly. Flor flings the bud into the brown grocery bag in front of them and moves down the folding table with her scissors to show the next girl.

This is how a trade is learned in many parts of the world: Women explain to other women how the boss likes it done. Over the next few weeks—when I see a new girl leaving the stems too long or shaving off too many crystals—I smile and wave to her. I hold a raw bud between my fingers and rotate it slowly as I shear away the leaves. Not too short, not too sloppy. “OK,” she nods.

There are 35 women employed full time as trimmers at Jim’s farm. I am one of two white women; the rest are friends, or friends of friends, of Flor. They are all from Colombia. For a grow this size, guys like Jim sometimes opt to fly their workers in from another country rather than run the risk of hiring locals who are more familiar with the region.

“No way in hell I’d trust a local chick with my gate combination,” Jim says. “I don’t need their boyfriends coming out here and cutting down my shit.” He means cutting down his weed before he gets a chance to harvest it himself, which happens to a lot of grows this time of year. Hiring trimmers from outside the country is a safety measure; the girls he employs have no cars, no phone service, and no local boyfriends. Once a week, Flor drives a couple of them into town to spend a little money. Other than that, they’re just here to work.

“I miss my babies,” Gabi* says to me over the worktable late one night, flipping through pictures of them on her iPhone. She’s 26, fat and soft and beautiful. She has a one-year-old daughter and a five-year-old son. I smile at the pictures of her little boy in a sailor costume and the two of them together at an outdoor carnival. “But their mama has to make them some money,” she says, straightening up and smiling. She puts the phone down and reaches for the blunt she’s been nursing. She takes a long slow drag, picks up a clean pair of scissors, and goes back to work.

I have no babies; I am here to take care of myself. Jim pays me $200 for every trimmed pound of weed I produce. On good days, if the buds are big, I can trim three or four pounds. Usually I average at least two. If I work every day I can make about $3000 a week in cash.

The benefit of working at a place like Jim’s is that the work is constant; there’s no need to travel long distances to someone’s grow, only to find that there’s just a week of work. The other benefit is that Jim’s already got his sales hookup, which means he actually has the money to pay us out when our work is done. This isn’t always the case; as the supply of marijuana has steadily increased and growers have found it harder and harder to move their product when the season ends, trimmers have increasingly had to bear the brunt of this.

Jim pays me $200 for every trimmed pound of weed I produce. On good days, if the buds are big, I can trim three or four pounds.
“It’s not uncommon to hear stories of a summer’s worth of work gone unpaid, with no legal recourse for the victim,” writes Linda Stansberry, a journalist from Humboldt County who has advocated for better treatment of women in the marijuana industry. Because non-medical cannabis cultivation is still illegal, the culture surrounding these scenes tends to be insular and secretive. As Stansberry puts it, the culture “functions due to the unspoken agreement that nobody narcs, ever,” even if you’ve been seriously wronged. For trimmers who have uprooted their lives to come work—to make money for their children or families often because they aren’t able to find better work elsewhere—this kind of exploitation is devastating.

The remote nature of marijuana cultivation also puts women and seasonal workers in danger of physical and emotional abuse. Many large grows are situated in remote locations, often several hours away from any kind of civilization. Workers get picked up to trim, not always knowing what the living or working conditions will be when they get there. If they find themselves in a dangerous or abusive situation, getting out of it, without raising suspicion or alarm, can be difficult.

“We’re not going to be able to go out and pick somebody up,” admits Maryann Hayes Mariani, a client services coordinator for the North Coast Rape Crisis Team. The grow locations are too remote, and they aren’t legally allowed on the property without a warrant. There’s also the chance that growers would react violently to outsiders showing up at their door. “It wouldn’t be safe for them or for us,” she says.

For Gabi and I, and the other trimmer girls, working at Jim’s is a calculated risk; we hope we get paid, we hope the Feds don’t find us, we hope the harvest is a good one, we hope we make enough money to justify abandoning our lives for these few months. We hope nothing bad happens. We hope it all works out.

“When we talk about weed and women, we don’t talk about the single mothers who trim during the fall so they can buy school clothes for their kids,” Stansberry writes. “We don’t talk about the women who are proficient in permaculture, homeopathy and botany, or the women who work their asses off to run scenes of their own so they can send their kids to college.”

As a woman, as a trimmer, I want to talk about the problems of an inherently sexist industry and culture without making women out to be the victims. I want to see a future where it’s legal for women and men to grow their own medicine, to make it part of a sustainable agrarian household, and to make a living from doing this work.

For all its problems, trimming and working in the marijuana industry has allowed me, and countless other women, the opportunity to enjoy a financial and spiritual independence that working in the world at large has not. I make the trip from Portland to Humboldt County almost every year to work the harvest season. It’s been nearly a decade since I first started and, while I’ve made peace with the stigmas associated with the work I do, I welcome a future where women don’t have to experience that kind of stigma at all.

Now, as marijuana legalization becomes more of a reality across the country, I see activist organizations forming to empower women who work with cannabis—to help give them more of a stake in a booming industry. Talk of trimming unions has become more commonplace, even as local growers continue to threaten to get machines to do their processing. (Personally, I think the buds look better trimmed by hand.)

While farms like Jim’s—big, remote, underground operations—will likely still exist when cannabis is legalized, they won’t be the only option for women who want to trim. And while many people in Humboldt County are already lamenting the end of the industry as we know it—namely, a dangerous and endless fountain of money—the promise of safer communities and workplaces is invaluable.

When I’m at home in Portland during the off-season, where weed is legal, I can walk into a dispensary and buy whatever I want with just a driver’s license. I can even buy four marijuana starts and plant them in my own yard, no documentation required. I can water them, feed them chicken shit, and check them tenderly for spider mites. When they bud I can cut them down, hang them to dry, and then trim the buds to smoke for the rest of the year. I won’t be paid to do this, but I’ll be working on my own terms.

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