It's the End of an Era for California's Outlaw Weed Farmers
Taiga Leigh from Trinidad, a small scale organic farmer in Grass Valley, has been cultivating cannabis since he was 10 years old. He shared his secret for growing good weed: “My plants only listen to Midnight, a really big reggae band from St. Croix. They were grown on Midnight. ”


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It's the End of an Era for California's Outlaw Weed Farmers

With the legalization of recreational marijuana on the horizon, the clandestine farming communities of Northern California are set to face a reckoning.

Like the Gold Rush that drew miners in covered wagons to the West Coast, the Green Rush has long seduced growers and trimmers to Northern California's "Emerald Triangle," the largest cannabis-producing area in the United States since the 1970s.

It was disillusioned hippies from the Bay who first flocked to the Redwoods to cultivate the illicit herb. They established little fiefdoms in the hills and mountains of NorCal, where tales of police raids, buried fortunes, and bizarre disappearances were all too common. It was their version of the Wild West.


But the culture and color of the Emerald Triangle could change thanks to the passage of Proposition 64 in 2016, which will make recreational marijuana legal in California on January 1. Small-scale growers worry about how they'll compete with the big businesses eyeing the marijuana plant for profit. And cultivators who've been here for decades now feel as though they are stuck in legislative limbo as the local government decides how to interpret the state law, which contradicts the federal prohibition of pot.

Andrew from Willits, California has been growing cannabis since he was ten years old. "This is my life. The world of weed has been good to me," he said. "Things are changing faster than people can keep up with. I see a depression on the horizon for the Emerald Triangle. I will miss the way things used to be."

“If we’re not helping to write the laws, we’re going to get written out of them,” said Jonathan Collier, Executive Board Member of the Nevada County Cannabis Alliance.

The organization Collier belongs to believes that the survival of small growers’ hinges on providing a high quality, organic product. They also hope Nevada County approves a cannabis business licensing program in March. Within this proposed framework, a farm like Heart and Sol could grow the flower that could be converted into cannabis oil for Temple Extracts, which could then be sold at Elevation 2477', a dispensary waiting on a city permit. This model represents an avenue for isolated heritage farmers to reach consumers.

Legalization also poses new challenges for "trimmigrants," which is what locals call the young people who cut and shape buds for the marketplace.

Sunshine** is a trimmer who is originally from South Korea. She heard about the Emerald Triangle while traveling through Europe. “I’ve met a bunch of people [that] come for the American dream. This job is a lot of cash,” she said. “Heaps of money. You can get as much as you work.”


Unfortunately, the party might be coming to end. After legalization, California residents will have the option of working in the cannabis industry as taxed employees, but the law leaves no room for unregulated foreign workers. “After all of them are gone, I’ll still be here,” Lizzy, a native Californian, told me.

Getting work as a trimmer from the growers who come down from the mountains in their pickup trucks is a lot “like fishing," according to Jean Félix, who's originally from Montreal, Canada. "You’ve gotta be really zen." Unfortunately for the trimmers, machines are beginning to outpace manual labor because they can cut production costs for growers looking to maximize profits.

Nate explained why he grows medical marijuana: “My mom has rheumatoid arthritis, Lyme's disease, and fibromyalgia, and they had her on Oxycontin, Roxicodone, and Xanax. For years and years I had to watch my mom deteriorate, so I started getting her to smoke weed. Everyone sees the difference. When she’s smoking cannabis and she’s taking her oil, she’s cool. I feel like everyone should have access to marijuana because it is a healing plant.”

Many questions loom over the trimmers and growers of the Emerald Triangle, as the Wild West they've known becomes more regulated and tamed.

Cannabis is everything to these people—it's their livelihood, and it's given them a semblance of freedom and adventure. But because the Green Rush, after all, is about money, it was always bound to grow and evolve. How much is still yet to be seen.

Scroll down for more photos by Avery L. White.

Wade Laughter champions a strain of cannabis high in CBD content called “Harlequin” for its healing properties.

Denise from Romania trims weed in her home garage near Nevada City.

The world of weed exists in a weird realm populated by characters living out different shades of the American dream.

They typically hang-dry California cannabis for up to a week before trimmers begin manicuring the buds.

Many work up to 16 hours a day, seven days a week through the autumn peak season to save up enough money to travel elsewhere during winter months.

California’s Emerald Triangle is home to some of the most celebrated weed in the world.

After dropping out of college and working as a stripper, 23-year-old Sarah White left Colorado to work as a farmhand in Nevada City. “My goal was to eventually have my own property out here but with the way legalization is going I’m not sure if that’s realistic anymore. Prices are dropping and everything is becoming so commercialized. I like the hands on feel of working on a small farm where it’s like a family and a community.”

A cannabis crop ready for harvest overlooks devastation from wildfires in Calaveras County.

Downtown Garberville is filled with newly arrived “trimmigants” from all over the world looking for work.

**The last names of certain people involved in this story have been left out to protect their identities under the shifting landscape of legalization.

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