Not-So-High Times: What It’s like Being a Weed Trimmer in the Underground Cannabis Economy

A ranger in the Sequoia-Kings Marijuana Interdiction team cleans up an illegal grow operation on federal land. Photo courtesy of the National Parks Service
“There are these things called ‘topless farms,’ farms where they hire only women trimmers and pay more for the women to work topless. Obviously, sexual harassment is an issue.”

Every fall, thousands of young people from the Bay Area — many of them recent college graduates or underemployed folks looking for spare cash — hitch a ride north on 101 to work as trimmers for the marijuana farmers in the Emerald Triangle. “Trimming,” as the work is known informally, encompasses the processing and preparing of cannabis for sale and shipment, and it’s repetitive work that involves a lot of careful cutting and harvesting.

Even with the passage of Proposition 64, these trimming jobs exist in a legal gray area — remember, pot is still illegal federally — and hence the work can be risky. Rarely, if ever, does any legal paperwork get signed, and the pay can be intermittent. Trimming work is repetitive, physically intense and often causes carpal-tunnel-like health issues. If workers are harassed, abused or go unpaid, there is nowhere to turn. And many, perhaps even a majority, of the workers are women.

So why do so many people risk their futures — or even their lives — to work long days (and sometimes nights) trimming up north? In short, because the earnings can be grand: trimmers I spoke to described being able to make $300 a day or more if they stay focused.

Given that this is a pretty common gig for so many Bay Area locals, there is surprisingly little literature about what the experience is actually like. I spoke to several different people who had worked as trimmers about what their days were like. All were women — according to their accounts, it was much easier for women to get this work than men.

Note: names and identifying details have been changed, given the sensitive nature of the work.

“Cassie,” age 28, Australia

I first heard about trimming work through a girlfriend of mine years ago. She made $10,000 in three weeks and suggested it to me. I was trying to fund a nonprofit that I’d started, and I had taken out a huge loan. I was wondering, how could I make my money into more money? So I decided I wanted to invest in the US marijuana industry and also work while I was here. I gave my money to a broker while waiting for that to unfold.

I think it’s easy for pretty young girls to get work, but I think it can be harder for others who don’t have a connection. Everyone talks bout how much money you can make, so everyone wants to do it. I mean, I met some people last year who just flew here spontaneously, a group of girls who had bags put over their heads and were driven out to this remote farm. They got to this house, thought it was all right and started trimming. It was a big scene, 20–30 people, all women. But one of the workers robbed the grower, and so no one got paid after 40 days of work.

Also, in Humboldt, a huge number of women went missing last year. So there’s a dark aspect to it. A lot of the growers — who are mostly men — ask for sexual favors and such. I’ve heard of women who’ve been locked up or killed.

“[The work] is terrible. I hate it. I’d much rather be outside. You get really sore. Your shoulders get sore. My body does terribly in a chair. After the second week, it’s just really boring.”

There are these things called “topless farms,” farms where they hire only women trimmers and pay more for the women to work topless. Obviously, sexual harassment is an issue. Supposedly, farmers prefer to hire women because they are cleaner, steal less and focus on the work better. But most of the farmers are males overwhelmingly.

Also, it’s funny because you can’t go and report a bad experience. Who would you report to? I mean, it’s such a legal gray area. You couldn’t go to the cops; they can’t be trusted — especially in Mendocino and Humboldt, where the culture is not to trust the cops. It’s like the Wild West. Farmers are often very paranoid, and marijuana certainly enhances that.

Anyway, I’ve had good experiences mostly and stayed in real homes with real beds. I’ve trimmed in three places — in Willits, that was really amazing — and also two near Sebastapol that were pretty decent.

Are you worried about raids, given that you’re not a US citizen?

I mean, if US Customs found out I was working, I’d be in trouble. Speaking of raids, the grower I was working for last year—every farm around him got raided by helicopter. They cut down all the neighbors’ operations, but for some reason, they skipped his farm. That really traumatized him.

You’ve always gotten paid on time?

Almost — I haven’t been paid for some of the work I did last year. I ended up investing my money in this guy’s farm, $15,000, and his operation went down the tubes. He still says he’ll pay me back.

A good girlfriend of mine, a local, hasn’t been paid a few times. It can happen — I mean, they’re getting you to trim; then they go out and sell it; and something can fuck up in the time between those two points.

How is the work itself?

It’s terrible. I hate it. I’d much rather be outside. You get really sore. Your shoulders get sore. My body does terribly in a chair. After the second week, it’s just really boring. But you have time to sit down and listen to podcasts or watch documentaries or whatever. You sit and make a shit-ton of cash. You have to be very self-motivated.

If you’re fast at the work, it can make sense to come back every year. But the sitting is the hardest part. It’s bad for the body. I know a guy who’s really fast and can make $20,000 in a couple of months, but his body is wrecked.

“Anna,” age 30, California

I had just graduated from college and was working at an elementary school [in Humboldt County] and making so little that I was on food stamps. I learned quickly that everyone in the school community and community at large survived because of marijuana. Even the kindergarten teacher [at my school] was selling! I did some trim work for her, which was much more friendly than going out to the “real” farms. I was not in a position to turn down money.

Photo courtesy of Mark/Flickr

Later, I found a connection [with trimming work], and drove an hour from one remote area to an even more remote area [for the job]. I felt like I was entering another world. At the entrance to the “neighborhood” — a dirt road that led to the farms — I was greeted by a man with a gun. I explained who I was visiting — thank god I said the right thing — and got waved through.

I sat down in a living room, put on gloves, was handed a huge bag and got to work. I was surprised at how diligent everyone else around me was. It made sense — the more you trim, the more you make (you get paid by the pound).

I finished my first 12-hour day with hands tired and eyes sore, got my cash along with the rest of the crew and left.

“A lot of people who do this work often put on 35–40 pounds — it’s like the freshmen 15.”

“Beth,” age 28, East Coast

I’ve worked at a lot of different farms now, and the workplace really varies depending on the kind of setup — the culture of the farm, what they allow, how many people, etcetera. In order to manage the workers, generally there’s a start, end, dinner and lunch. What I do — which is more unusual — is I try to turn my trimming work into a sort of retreat. Every morning I go on a run, and I do yoga sometimes. Then I eat and then go to work. The majority of my day is cutting for 10–12 hours, with the exception of lunch and dinner. I take little breaks for movement and such.

Indoor-grow operation. Photo courtesy of Mark/Flickr

A lot of people who do this work often put on 35–40 pounds — it’s like the freshmen 15. Everyone just gets fat because they’re continually eating. They’re smoking while working, so they have the munchies. (Although, to clarify, not everyone smokes at work.)

There are a lot of odd sleeping conditions — a lot of people camp or buy vans for the season, or they build a bed in the back of their car. RVs and trailers are very common, where you’ll share with the people there or work in them. My first time in Arcata I did that. Recently, I slept on the floor in the workspace, which was actually better for my back. But it was stuffy and hard not having personal space.

How do you find the work?

The best way is through friends of friends. I think that you just gotta network, make friends and talk to people. Often you have friends who’ve done it. The majority of people who do this kind of work are world travelers. I think — it’s a very international crew. A lot of the people who go to trance or psy-trance shows—that culture. They like to trim.

What’s the pay like?

It varies based on the plant, but it’s almost always paid by weight, per pound. The rate is going down everywhere, especially as it becomes legal. In Oregon, it’s almost always $150 per pound. In California, I think it’s, like, $200 per pound, and in Nevada City it’s $175-ish. I earned maybe $150 in Santa Cruz and Arcata.

It’s all arranged by word of mouth. No contract, no 1099, no taxes. They really have to trust that you won’t steal or tell anyone. And you have to trust that they’ll pay you.

The hourly pay depends on how long it takes to trim a pound. That’s why it’s important to figure out the condition of the plant before you start. If you’re slow, a pound takes around a day, maybe more. I think the average is probably two pounds a day. If you’re fast, you can do three to six pounds a day. There’s a learning curve, definitely — if you work too fast, you can get sloppy and then get reprimanded. So the average is probably two pounds.

For really small buds — called popcorn buds — you often work by the hour. Usually the pay is around $50 per hour. I did make an hourly wage one day when I worked with CBD [Cannabidiol] marijuana — it didn’t need trimming but it did need to be taken off the stems, because it was going to a medical-marijuana company who would crush it to make epilepsy medicine from the oil.

Do you get high while you work?

Yeah, some of the plants get you higher than others. Some are really crystally and strong. When I don’t wear gloves, and when I’m working with good stuff, I can feel it just barely.

I don’t smoke at work because if I’m stoned, I worry that I’ll work slower. For me the perfect match is gloves with the tips of the fingers cut off so I can have tactile use of my hands. Most people work bare handed, though.

How many places have you worked at have been black market or illegal?

I think all the ones I worked at had state licenses, for sure. But obviously it’s federally illegal, so the feds can always raid you. The problem is that legally you can grow only 99 plants, but most farms grow more. It’s really legally complicated, and still, there are raids — I haven’t been in one, but I’ve had friends who’ve had to run during a raid.