Wine is great. Weed is great. But the amalgamation of the two industries? One of the two might just be getting the short end of the stick.
Four states and the District of Columbia have so far legalized the recreational use of marijuana, while 23 states have laws legalizing it in some forms, such as medical applications. But for winegrowers in California—the heart of both the weed and the wine industries in the United States—this is not necessarily good news.
The problem for winegrowers is not competition for customers. In fact, evidence shows that a burgeoning recreational weed market within a state can actually help its alcohol sales. For example, although Colorado initially experienced a drop in alcohol sales when medical marijuana was legalized, later, when recreational weed got its blessing from state lawmakers, sales of alcohol dramatically rose. This was partly due to increased tourism and partly thanks to an influx of pot-lovers moving to the state to live there.
No, the problem for winegrowers in California is that no one wants to pick grapes anymore. Instead, the usual migrant workers—who year-after-year had appeared in wine country to pick grapes and make a quick buck—now seem to prefer being "trimmigrants."
In case you've never heard the term, a trimmigrant is a worker who travels to a place to ready already harvested marijuana plants by trimming unwanted leaves and stems. An essential task in the marijuana harvest, trimming pot plants pays a lot better than picking grapes does. And if you're a ganja aficionado, you might prefer it for other reasons as well.
Humboldt and Mendocino counties in California—the epicenter of marijuana cultivation in the United States—are flooded with young people from around the world each fall, which is harvest season. They come to make as much as $25 per hour trimming buds. Some are instead paid by the pound, and can make $300 to $500 a day.
Martha Barra, who owns Redwood Valley Vineyards, tells Vinography that she has had a real problem finding grape pickers this year: "When we need help in the vineyard around harvest time, we put out signs that we're looking for pickers." In the past, Barra had no problem finding people that were happy to ask for work. But, she said, "This year, none did. I was down at the grocery store around harvest time, and saw four young people holding up a sign saying that they were looking for work. I told them to jump in the back of my pickup and I'd give them work. 'What's the job?' they said, and when I told them picking grapes, they said that wasn't the kind of job they were looking for. It made me furious. These kids can get paid $20 an hour to sit inside on a white bucket and trim buds."
Typically, vineyard work pays between $10 and $12 an hour, much lower than the rate that trimmigrants are paid. Norman Kobler, owner of Ardzrooni Vineyard Management company, also says he simply can't compete with the burgeoning pot business when it comes to workers: "Last year was the first year where we just couldn't find enough people and it cost us work."
Thinking of becoming a trimmigrant? As NPR reports, it's not all mellow times at the weed farm; the work can be back-breaking. One trimmer named Bishma told NPR, "Some people think I sit eight hours at a job, [but] it's like we're sitting here 14 hours. And it's the same repetitive motion over and over and over again." In addition, if you happen to end up working for an illegal operation—pot-growing is, of course, highly regulated in California—you can go to jail. In fact, county sheriffs say the majority of growers in Humboldt County are operating illegally. And, as with all migrant work, there are other dangers: workers find themselves in remote areas with transient coworkers. Both drifters and unsavory squatter camps are becoming more pervasive in northern California.
Still, the trimmigrant lifestyle is drawing a solid following of young people—people who, in the past, might have been picking grapes.
It's a problem the winegrowers never expected to have. They might well have expected competition for customers once marijuana legalization hit their state—but not competition for workers.