The Last Illegal Harvest
From the hills south of Santa Cruz, California, we could see clouds gathering through the redwoods, not quite dark, but large and billowy, adding a timbre of drama to the day. The weather service said rain would be rolling in sometime around midnight. California could always use some rain. Except that there were seventy-nine Cherry OG cannabis plants growing on the hillside, and this late in the season rain brought the threat of mold, and mold could erase months of hard work. Walker’s crew was small, just six of us, and these plants had to be harvested, bucked down, and hung under a roof before the storm arrived.
Also, we’d hit a snag. Only three of the six shipping containers Walker planned to use for drying the weed had made it up the hill, and just barely at that — transmission fluid spilled across the gravel incline, the exasperated truck driver ticking off a list of excuses and minor catastrophes that impeded his delivery. The three other containers were, we were assured, en route from the Oakland docks.
“What if they don’t get here by tonight?” I asked Walker, who owned this plot in the hills, completely off the grid and abutting a large state park.
“They better get here by tonight,” Walker replied. He rubbed his neck and stared at his beat-up Vans, a fizzled spliff hanging from his mouth. Without the other containers, we’d have a difficult time getting all these plants hung out of the rain to dry. Too much moisture meant we could lose the crop. For Walker, the season presented challenges from the beginning. He didn’t decide to plant a crop until June, and since then, it seemed, he’d been playing catch-up. Ordering the containers late is one example. It wasn’t until the day before that we made the trip into nearby Watsonville for some tools, lumber, fans, vents, and dehumidifiers for the curing process — roughly three grand in cash dropped at the local hydroponic shop and Home Depot.
When we were in town, I asked Walker what he thought about recreational legalization.
“Naw, man. It’s never going to go legal,” he said with such assurance as to sound dismissive.
I couldn’t believe it. “It’s on the ballot for this election,” I told him. “It looks like it’s going to pass.”
“It is, really?” he said. “Huh.” He lit his spliff, blowing a cloud of smoke out the truck window.
It was mid-October, 2016. In just three weeks, Californians would go to the ballot and pass Proposition 64, the Control, Regulate and Tax Adult Use of Marijuana Act. For many weed farmers in California operating in the gray area between local medicinal ordinances and federal prohibition, last season may well have been the last illegal harvest.
Walker, though, had more immediate concerns.
Around noon, the sun was warming the hillside as we sheared the large, water leaves and tossed the branches, heavy with sticky buds (or “flowers” as everyone seemed to be calling them now) into large plastic totes to be hefted up the hill and hung on lines in the shipping containers that made it here. Walker worked a skill saw across a two-by-four, fashioning a crosshatched skeleton to run the lines inside the container. He recently turned forty years old, with work-leathered hands and deep lines veining downward from his eyes.
We looked down the hill to the rows of plants. We’d barely made a dent in the crop. It was going to be a long day.
Kyle worked next to me on the hillside. He was telling me about a popular strain of cannabis, called OG Kush, a topic of conversation that’s not altogether rare amongst a certain type of person in California. I’m a relative layman, but I grew up in the Bay Area and know plenty of growers, so even I know that over the last several years OG Kush has ballooned in popularity.
“The Kush comes from the Hindu Kush,” Kyle explained, “the mountains between Afghanistan and Pakistan. That’s where the genetics come from. It’s the same latitude as Northern California so it grows hella good here.” The OG means ocean grown, he said, meaning it’s from near the Pacific. I’d always thought OG came from the slang for original gangster, meaning simply, the original. I must have appeared incredulous. “I know a lot about weed, bro,” Kyle told me. He was probably right. He was also probably very high, but it’s difficult for me to tell. In the years I’ve known him, he’s carried an industrial-grade setup the size of a car battery that hooks to a glass-and-metal contraption used for vaporizing a potent, concentrated form of THC called “dabs” that by all accounts can floor even a seasoned joint-smoker. Kyle is an Army veteran from San Diego who served a tour in Iraq in 2010. He has a sharp sense of humor, but his mood fluctuated from calm and introspective to animated and boisterously loud, verging on aggressive, depending on whether he’d recently plugged in the rig, inhaled, and pacified himself.
Working down the row was Diego, who was from Bolivia, having crossed the southern border through the desert with his mother and brother when he was six. Now in his thirties, he’s a house DJ based in Washington DC. He and his brother were building a sound system and production studio there, the opening of which was slated for just after harvest. For someone who was self-employed, like Diego, California’s marijuana harvest could provide a nice, tax-free windfall if you were willing to put in the labor. This, largely, was why I was there too.
While teaching at the University of Oregon in the fall of 2015, I spent a long weekend working on a cannabis farm in Trinity County, part of California’s famed Emerald Triangle. In those four days manicuring weed, I earned nearly as much as I did in a month’s worth of adjuncting at the university. I stopped applying for teaching positions and decided to drive to California to work the harvest instead.
From the beginning, my trip was ill-planned. My contacts were in rural areas, often out of cell range, had spotty internet service, and I was having trouble getting in touch. I supposed it stood to reason that the type of person who chose to live in the woods for most of the year would hold communication with the outside world (i.e. me) as a low priority. Several growers I’d spoken with in the summer told me to just drive down, hang around, and let them know when I was in the area. In early October I texted one contact, a friend of mine who everyone called Dizzy. They would start work tomorrow, he told me. How soon could I get there?
Dizzy owned a property in Trinity County, near Junction City, seven acres girded by web-like manzanitas at the end of a dirt road on a section of the Trinity River. He also partnered with Walker on a separate cannabis farm in Shasta County to the east. On his property in Trinity County, Dizzy practiced permaculture farming, or agriculture systems that are designed to be self-sufficient and regenerative. When you hear people talk about sustainability, some version of permaculture is what they mean. Dizzy walked me around the property — a marijuana garden adjacent an abundant vegetable garden with leafy greens, tomatoes, gourds (a pumpkin the circumference of a truck tire), edible flowers, and a number of plants I didn’t recognize.
“To do this shit successfully is largely about taking a step back,” he said. He called this “protracted and thoughtful observation.” The first year should be spent observing and taking note of your swales and water runoff, your solar sectors, shady zones, wind sheers, et cetera, et cetera.
Of course, it’s not easy for many people to buy seven acres of California land, let alone spend a year observing the shade. Just to own property in California is an opportunity not afforded to most. Even if I had the capital for the down payment on a place like this, the mortgage alone would sink me, like it did the previous owner, who was foreclosed on by the bank. It’s not easy to make a living off food farming, either. Dizzy and his small crew of caretakers sold their produce at the local farmer’s market, but the profits, while they made Dizzy proud, were nowhere near what you’d call sustaining.
Then again, it helped when you had the largest weed plants I’d ever seen “funding the fucking mission.”
Day one of harvesting in Trinity: a man in a bucket hat and coveralls introduced himself in a gentle southern drawl. He owned a vegetable farm in northern Georgia, working a California weed harvest to supplement his own yield. He showed me his Instagram account, of which he had nearly 8000 followers, depicting his exploits foraging prehistoric-looking edible mushrooms around the foothills of the southern Appalachia mountains.
“I’m kind of like the forager of Georgia,” he told me.
About a dozen others were on the farm — equal parts men and women, cooks and yogis and fire-dancers and farmers and itinerants who Dizzy recruited while travelling, or at festivals, or more and more these days at permaculture conferences in Northern California and Costa Rica. One of Dizzy’s former permaculture classmates was a professional snowboarder from Nagano, Japan. She’d enlisted two of her Japanese friends to work with her on the weed garden next door to Dizzy’s, owned by a fishing guide on the Trinity who wore a camo baseball cap and had, it seemed to me, an ever-present dip of Copenhagen tobacco bulging in his bottom lip.
That night we sat in the garage and drank tequila and beer Dizzy supplied for the crew. He was holding court, explaining the benefits of organic growing, both for food and for marijuana.
“At some point,” Dizzy said, “we’re going to have to show up in a suit and tie with some nice combed hair, not pie-eyed, and we’re going to have to fucking articulate.”
“That’s what the hippies didn’t understand,” Neil said, tipped-on-his-toes drunk and swaying slightly. Neil wore a bushy beard and a tie-dyed shirt ripped down the side, speaking of hippies as a bygone species.
“There are actually a lot of hippies that did understand that. If it wasn’t for some clean-cut hippies we would not be getting permits in this county next year,” Dizzy said, meaning Trinity County. “The hippies showed up. And I was there. And we wrote that ordinance and we got it through. We passed it.”
California medical marijuana laws allow each county to determine for themselves how marijuana farming should be regulated, curtailed, and taxed. This type of local county and municipal control was written into the Adult Use of Marijuana Act as well, and has been heralded as the way to ensure communities have control over how the state law will be implemented in their own backyards. In the largely conservative Shasta county, for example, Dizzy and Walker were forced to shut down their most successful outdoor grow operation when Shasta banned outdoor growing entirely. The ban was ostensibly meant to eliminate the more wasteful, rip-and-run grower from renting raw land, using chemical fertilizers and other harmful shortcuts to cash in on the short term. But in effect, an indoor growing ordinance eliminates Northern California’s most precious asset: a natural climate suited to growing a lucrative cash crop for anybody with a little land and a little know-how who is willing to work for it.
Not far from Walker’s property, I met with Toby White and his business partner James Cunningham at Toby’s home in Aptos, California. In the kitchen, a newly renovated black countertop gleamed. Lounge-y electronic music played low in the living room below a raw wooden shelf holding some rare-looking liquor bottles. Now and then the music was punctured by a power saw somewhere in the house. Toby was having a new door installed for one of the downstairs rooms. I never saw who was doing the installing.
In January of 2016 the city council in nearby Watsonville made theirs the fourth city in California to adopt an ordinance issuing permits for legal medicinal cannabis cultivation. Just six permits were issued — Toby and James were among the fortunate few.
Since I was a teenager, I’ve known dozens of marijuana growers, from old hippie collectives to side-of-the-highway guerilla growers to large-scale outdoor farmers. I’m loosely acquainted with at least two men who have served time in the federal penitentiary for the cultivation of marijuana in California. So many men and women, most of them people of color, have been arrested, prosecuted, and jailed during the state’s decades-long war on drugs. So, what made these two thirty-something Santa Cruz County growers worthy of the city’s good graces?
“Was it just luck?” I asked. We’d moved outside to get away from the sound of the renovations.
“A combination,” Toby responded. “I mean there were a lot of people that had the money to do it but he chose us over them.” A pause. “We did get lucky on it,” Toby said.
“The owner of the property. It was a total bidding war.”
Here’s how it worked: Watsonville zoned certain areas for cultivation, and within those areas, only certain properties were made available to bid on for grow operations. Immediately, bidding began on each space. If the property owner chose to offer the lease, only then could they apply for, and receive, a permit.
James said there were over fifty offers on the property, offers from China, offers from some of the wealthiest people in the industry. “Anybody who’s paying attention to business in general understands that this is the fastest growing business on the West Coast. Period,” James said.
“But he didn’t just give it to the highest bidder?” I asked.
“No, he didn’t,” said Toby, arching his eyebrows, smiling, and shaking his head as one does when he recognizes his good fortune. “I think he felt more comfortable with us than a lot of other people who were coming into the industry.”
I could see it. Both of these guys were handsome and affable and well-spoken, but not in a stuffed-suit-kind-of-way. James grew up in the area — Santa Cruz, Aptos, Live Oak. He drove a truck, he surfed, and he’d grown weed for the better part of ten years. Toby was from Connecticut, and settled in California eleven years ago. With his wife, Toby converted a ‘65 Airstream trailer into a high-end mobile bar, called Craft Bar. He’s a partner for the music and arts festival, Symbiosis Gathering, and is a founding member of another music festival, Gem and Jam, in Tucson.
Century 21 of Aptos, CA, counts Toby among their realtors.
I could see how these two might have made an appealing choice. No Chinese investors. No big Colorado weed outfits. No Silicon Valley sharks. Not that Dizzy or Walker couldn’t have fought for this type of deal, but you can’t fight for the privileges you don’t even know are on the table. Toby and James were two connected locals with business acumen who’d grown weed all over California, now poised to become the advanced guard of legal cannabis cultivators in Santa Cruz County, calling their brand Fog City Farms.
They were in the early stages of construction on their warehouse, working with architects and engineers and securing building permits. In the meantime, James would be flying to Maui to meet with a breeder, who he called Brother Willie. Last year, he brought Brother Willie some cannabis strains from the Santa Cruz region, and now he was returning to see what Brother Willie had spliced up.
“He’s created some new strains that’ve never been created before,” said James. As is becoming the custom, the two wanted their own genetics to differentiate Fog City Farms from the larger cultivators that AUMA will no doubt usher in.
As for the proposition, James and Toby said they would vote for it, but with strong reservations.
“Obviously being in the industry you want to see it go a certain way,” Toby said, “and then also for yourself, and to see what would happen to your friends and everything else is a whole other thing too.”
He was tip-toeing on both sides of the line, and I could see why. He and James were positioning themselves so that when the Adult Use of Marijuana Act passed, it would be very good for Fog City Farms. Once they had the medicinal permit, it would be that much easier to obtain recreational licensing. It’ll be good for a lot of growers who’d come into the light, minded the deadlines, registered with municipalities, and entered the brave new world of state-sanctioned marijuana. For the others, though, well, that might be a different story.
“People doing it at a more personal level are not going to be able to survive through this,” Toby said. I thought of Walker and Dizzy. I thought of other friends who never found an inch of footing in the square world, the world of diplomas and permits and registrations and taxes — some of my dearest friends who never went to college but found success in a trade that required hard work and that risked their very freedom. These are people who support families and make livings in the current, semi-legal weed trade, and I’m worried what will happen to them come next harvest.
“But at the same time, it pushes us to the next level,” Toby continued. “Gets us into a better place.”
“I guess that’s the point, right?” I said. “To get people who are permitted into that position.”
“Yeah, but there’s still people doing it in a legal way right now, medicinally, but they’re—”
“They’re not going to be able to make any money off of it,” James said.
“No,” said Toby. “But it’ll also make it harder for everybody, even us, because there will be much larger corporations buying up more space and growing a whole lot more and the prices will go down and it’ll make it more difficult for everybody. But that is going to be the direction, at the end of the day, that we want to have happen.”
I once asked Dizzy what got him into growing weed in the first place. What he told me is maybe the simplest and most relatable of desires: he wanted freedom. He wanted to be his own boss, to have his own land and learn his own trade. He wanted to “get off the nipple,” as he put it. I don’t want to sound too utopian about it — none of us can escape certain hypocrisies (or the clichés, apparently) when decrying the rat race of consumerism — but growing weed has to some degree made that freedom possible for many of the small farmers I know.
The recent vote to pass the Adult Use of Marijuana Act in California has opened the largest market in a legal marijuana industry already valued at close to $6 billion. The question is this: will the new law protect the small, organic, California weed farmer, who took considerable risk building a functioning underground industry out of an ideal of autonomy and dissent, finding a life outside of a system that was never meant for him anyway? Or will America’s industrial past repeat itself, will corporate interests with astonishingly vast resources swoop in and take over?
But of course, this question begs an even broader one: who lays claim to California and its resources? And who can rightfully call the industry theirs when many of its pioneers are people of color who have been disproportionately incarcerated? Can we call these small-scale farmers — largely white and largely male — the owners of the industry, or simply a different class of privileged beneficiaries?
This, in essence, is a story about who gets to benefit from capitalism. The farmers I spoke with said they wanted to escape a destructive system to feel free. But American capitalism will always come back at you, whether you want it to or not.
These fears of environmental abuse and corporate takeover are why many small-scale growers prefer the gray area — they want the restrictions on land usage and on harmful pesticides and fertilizers where it’s needed, but they want continued freedom from other regulations — and so voted against the Adult Use of Marijuana Act, or didn’t vote at all. What matter is the implementation of a system of rules if you simply choose not to abide by them? These growers are leery of one section of the law in particular, a chapter that stipulates that after January 1st, 2023, the moratorium will be lifted on how much land any individual grower can own, allowing for anyone with deep enough pockets to buy as much California land as they’re able and paint the golden state green with profits.
“But, who knows?” Dizzy said. “Ten years ago we thought: the price has bottomed out. The whole thing is fucked. Ten years later, here we are.”
At Walker’s, the weather service had pushed the forecast of rain back a couple of hours. A man in shorts and flip-flops driving a golf cart delivered a middle-aged woman named Moira, who stepped from the golf cart and walked straight down the hill to the garden and began working.
He also delivered cocaine, which sat on a dish atop the wood-burning stove in the small studio cottage where Walker and his girlfriend reside on the property. Next to the coke, another dish, this one with pink, granular MDMA. Like I said, none of us can escape the hypocrisies when decrying American consumerism. It’s mid-afternoon, and there was still a huge amount of work to do. But now, I guess, there was chemical assistance.
Walker was on the phone with the shipping container guys all afternoon, yet the three remaining containers had yet to arrive up the hill. It seemed clear now that we wouldn’t have the containers there before the rain. We needed to improvise or Walker could lose a year’s worth of work, not to mention the tens of thousands of dollars put into this season’s crop. Kyle, who worked in logistics for the Army in Iraq, had some choice expletives for the subcontractors delivering (or not delivering) the containers. We outfitted two tarpaulin carports with zip-tied mesh wire for hanging plants, and move one to a stretch of land above the garden that Walker levelled with his Bobcat earthmover earlier in the day. We wouldn’t be able to manage the humidity in the carports as well as we would have been able to in the airtight containers, but at the very least it would get the plants out of the rain.
A fiery sunset muscled through the clouds. Night fell. Things took on a frantic pace. Walker had lost his keys, and his truck was locked. I was unsure what keys we were looking for, and why. Headlamps whipped around the property, or hovered on a plant as it was sheared, bucked down, and tossed into a pile. Diego and Moira were cutting the plants down, and Kyle and I hefted them over our shoulders and trudged them a hundred feet up the hill to the carport. I groaned, feeling an ache in my back and a dull burning in my knee. I was a teacher, not accustomed to this type of work.
“Jeez! Come on!” Walker said, skipping around me and collecting plants to hang. “You guys are getting old!” He said you guys, but he was clearly talking to me.
Walker stood on the step-side and wedged a makeshift slim-jim into the door, attempting to retrieve his keys locked inside. I watched him as a tremendous wall of dark clouds over the Pacific moved in our direction.
Sometime after midnight, sixteen hours or so after we began for the day, the shipping containers arrived in the truck below us on the road. The driver spoke with a thick Eastern European or Russian accent with very little command of English. Sorry, he said, no receipts. He stuffed seven thousand dollars in cash into his pocket, ground the shifter into gear and revved the engine up the incline. Halfway, the truck whined and faltered, unable to make it up the final steep stretch of driveway. Walker was urging him on, but the truck simply wasn’t powerful enough. The Russian backed up and tried again. Again, he failed to ascend the hill. As I watched this scene, the Russian unable to push on, and Walker waving his arms in exasperation as if willing the truck upward, I felt the first raindrops of what would soon be a heavy downpour.