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This One Time, at Trim Camp…

teafaerie | Musings | Thursday, February 25th, 2016

I know that it’s been a long time since you’ve heard from me. Please accept my most humble apologies. I was working away from home for a few months. In a place without Internet. At least mostly.

Perhaps you have wondered how the Teafaerie supports herself. I mean Erowid can’t afford to pay me. And if they could, I wouldn’t let them. Heck, if I had any expendable income, I would donate to Erowid. (Just like all of you who use the service either totally do now or would do if you could, right?) Besides which they know damn good and well that I’d actually pay for the privilege of getting to piss in the collective meme pool.

The festivals where I help hold down the psychedelic support space almost every weekend don’t pay more than a pittance, if anything; I get a lot of free festival tickets, plus occasional meal tickets. Some people assume that I must be selling drugs, but I can’t. It’s a condition of my marriage. Way too sketchy for someone who speaks up as publicly as I do about these matters. So I end up doing a lot of actual babysitting and assorted odd jobs, ranging from helping people tighten up their screenplays to mucking out the occasional porn studio.

But I make most of my scratch for the year as a migrant farm worker. By which I mean, I trim weed for a living. The season varies, but this year I was away from home and husband from about the middle of September until the new Star Wars movie came out. That’s three whole months of working pretty much the entire time that I was awake. This earned me enough to pay for all of my summer adventures, and set me up to take a few more months off from the scrambling so that I can finally get some long put-off writing done.

When most people imagine migrant farm work, they tend to picture a bunch of poorly paid undocumented immigrants busting their humps in substandard conditions. In the weed world, there’s a lot of variation. I’ve worked at places where I would rather have been picking cotton, and yes I do have some idea of what I’m talking about. My grandparents were Oakies. But I’ve also worked at places that almost felt like resorts.

I trimmed at three different farms this year, spanning the range. At one place, there were over a dozen of us working shoulder to shoulder in a pop-up plastic carport with zero amenities. A generator was set up to provide electricity, though the lighting was consistently insufficient. (A headlamp with rechargeable batteries is an indispensable part of my travel kit.) There was also a heater at one end, and a hot plate. We had to buy our own food when someone went on a store run. No showers or toilets were provided, and those of us who were lucky enough to beg quarter at a neighbor’s farm had to lay out our sleeping bags like sardines in the same room where six dogs also slept (and sometimes fought).

Before coming there I was at a really cushy place that let us trim in the house. The trim boss provided the food, plus some extras like wine, whiskey, and sake. He even cooked for us. We could watch movies while we worked, and there was a hot tub.

Farm number three made us buy and make our own food, but it was supplemented with an occasional Costco run. We slept in tents in the bitter cold, but they were inside of a greenhouse, so the endless rain didn’t soak all our belongings. The trim room was a real building with a nice kitchen and a wood stove that kept us all toasty. Plus a bunch of my friends were there. All in all it was a pretty nice situation.

It’s always kind of like a box of chocolates; you never know what you’re going to get, unless you’re lucky enough to have dibs on an established situation that brings back the same crew every year. I’ve had that off and on, but most of my people have retired from the business. Mainly because they’ve had babies, and thus they’re rightfully more risk-averse than they used to be.

So every year there’s the asking around bit. I contact the usual suspects and then follow up on any nibbles. Eventually somebody says something like, “Yeah, maybe we could use one more if you can start in September. And my neighbor thinks he’ll have a week or two just about when we’re finished up here. I could put in a good word for you…” And so the adventure begins.

Of course it helps if you’re a hot chick, and if you have some experience. Pretty much in that order. It’s not fair, I agree. But what is? Illicit work does have its downsides. One of which is lack of regulatory oversight. You can’t sue these guys for inequitable hiring practices. Or for sexual harassment. Though for the most part the men that I’ve worked for have seemed more pathetically hopeful than genuinely creepy or downright dangerous. (I’m sure there are exceptions.) To be honest, the best power trimmers that I’ve ever know have been hotties. I worked with one girl this year who claimed to have trimmed over 275 pounds this season. She had worked at twelve different farms over the course of five months, earning enough to pay off her entire student loan debt. Just KABLAM! She’ll never have to think about it again. She was sincerely concerned that she might have developed Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, though…

There are also an increasing number of undocumented workers on the circuit. Because again with the no regulations. I have worked with some Mexican people, but for the most part it’s European traveling kids. There was a big Colombian contingent at the first place I trimmed at this year, which probably worked out for me because my Spanish is lousy. Talking kills. Or at least it costs money.

For some people, Trim Camp is seen as a social opportunity. I used to be one of them, in fact. It’s a marvelous hook-up scene. (Where hot showers are available, at any rate.) Just imagine the following scenario: There you are, thrown together with a bunch of other mostly young, mostly free folks for a couple of months, the vast majority of whom are utterly unfamiliar with your personal foibles. You spend a season in close quarters with these people and then disperse, often to never see one another again. It’s the perfect little pocket universe in which it’s possible to almost wholly reinvent yourself, or just try out new material. Heck, even your old stories are brand new to total strangers, and there’s a lot of time to sit around relating them.

If you want to lose money, that is. Like I said, talking kills. Watching movies is pretty bad, too. The Teafaerie is a freaking machine when she’s working. I know that it’s a little bit rude, but I’m usually that girl in the corner who can’t hear you because she almost never turns her iPod off. Reliable Internet isn’t something that can be counted upon, especially if you plan to hit up multiple scenes. So I always pre-load my MP3 player with several weeks worth of lectures by people like McKenna, Watts, Fuller, and Feynman, plus a whole bunch of TED talks and podcasts. You never know what kind of crap will get put on by consensus. Noise canceling headphones can fend off most of it, though. And you can get quite an education while you’re busily shredding it, which always makes me feel like I’m getting away with something.

You obviously get to work with a whole lot of weed, and you can usually smoke as much as you want to. That’s not nearly as awesome as it sounds, though. For one, the oils are absorbed through your fingertips, so you get high whether you like it or not. Unless you wear gloves, which feel awkward to me and slow me down. I guess it IS kind of fun to tease teenagers by truthfully telling them that I’ve stepped on more weed than they’ve ever seen in their lives. At the end of the day, it’s just like working at a bank, though. In the first week or so it must be fun to get to handle all those thousands of dollars, but after a while you start thinking of gigantic piles of money as just more of that horrible green shit that gets your hands dirty.

Every scene has its own way of doing things, mostly revolving around the fact that trimmers typically get paid by the pound, as opposed to by the hour. Some places ask trimmers to help harvest and hang the plants out to dry, and they tend to pay hourly for that part. Then the dried branches also have to get bucked down into manageable nuggets, which sometimes the bosses do for you. Mostly it gets done collectively or each person bucks their own bin for the day.

Trim Scene Motivational Poster, "A Sonny Wong Production"

Trim Scene Motivational Poster,
“A Sonny Wong Production”

The problem is that plants tend to vary and most growers have a number of strains going. Some bins are chock full of dense juicy golf balls, while other bins are stuffed with light larfy popcorn that falls apart when you touch it. Solutions to this situation vary wildly. Some bosses assume that it averages out over time and they simply ignore it, while others have elaborate policies to try to keep everything even. “Cherry picking”, or intentionally trying to hoard the best stuff for oneself, is universally considered to be a cardinal sin, though. Woe unto she who gets caught at it or who’s even suspected of it.

There are co-operative strategies that I’d like to explore more. For instance, at the last place I worked, half a dozen of my friends and I tried forming a collective whose members all worked together and then divided our money up evenly. This way we were able to form a production line where one person did all the bucking while another person pulled off the sugar leaves and snipped doglegs. Then our four fastest trimmers just had to give them all haircuts. We each ended up getting more than our individual average that way. But the super trimmers who didn’t want to play our little commie-ass games quickly put down the Red Menace by complaining to the management on some truly ridiculous grounds. We did get to keep our clever meal-making strategy, though! Instead of each one of us wasting a half an hour on cooking just for ourselves, one person would make a meal that served all of us. For the cook, we chipped in all of the nuggets that we could trim in a 20-minute speed round. We each bagged more buds for ourselves than we would have gotten if we’d made food individually, and the cook got 6×20 minutes worth of product trimmed to add to their own sack, which was significantly less time than it took to make dinner for all of us. Go Teamwork!

When the buds are fairly decent I can trim two pounds a day on my own, if I’m really trying. This means sitting in my chair from 9 AM until about midnight, only stopping to eat and to stretch out my muscles. I’ve known girls who can knock out three pounds in the same time frame, but their work tends to be on the sloppier side. Expectations vary in that sense as well, with some growers wanting every bud to look like it could be on the cover of High Times, and others who frankly don’t give a damn. Or not as much of a damn, anyway. I try to be neat enough that my work ranks near the bottom of the top half. In other words I insure that I’m doing a nicer job than the majority of the other trimmers, but only just barely. When I first started out, I was a bit of a perfectionist; I was lucky if I got a whole pound in a day. And a pound in 2016 isn’t worth what it used to be.

The scene is changing, you see. Some people say that it’s dying. Though it’s also blowing up. Which sounds contradictory. I know. That’s the situation in a nutshell for you.

The contradictions can be explained (or at least summed up) in one word: legalization. I live and work in California, where it’s currently legal for each citizen to grow a certain number of plants for supposedly medical purposes. It’s not legal to sell your harvest on the black market, though. The whole operation is still officially illegal on the Federal level, though enforcement is sporadic and selective. Most people are expecting Cali to vote for recreational soon, which is ironically tragic for a whole bunch of growers whose livelihoods have previously been based on selling simple plants for something like the current price of gold.

There’s more than a bit of cognitive dissonance at play. Some people say that we’d have had recreational already if there wasn’t so much pot money actively lobbying against it. Then again, nobody wants to go to jail, or to have their friends go to jail. Or their customers, even. Likewise nobody likes getting robbed by their rivals (or by the cops) and having no legal recourse. Almost everyone wants legalization on the philosophical level. But while sales prices have remained high at increasingly boutique state-legal medical dispensaries, the profit per pound for growers has been plunging precipitously in recent years. Especially for pot that was grown out of doors.

Trimming Scissors, Photo by the Teafaerie

Trimming Scissors, Photo by the Teafaerie

Another factor is that the decreased risk of prosecution on the state level has led to a glut in the market. In some Northern California counties there are literally hundreds of pot farms, most of which are eager to blow it up just as big as they dare before the bottom falls out. This will happen just as soon as it’s officially legalized and the way is paved for big companies to set up the kind of agribusiness machine that would be very tough for small farms to compete with. There will still be a niche market for home grown, especially the super boutique stuff, but bigger players will produce a lot more, and for cheaper. So naturally everybody and their cousin wants to get while the getting is still fair-to-middlin’. The end result being that in certain areas there is so much activity that local businesses openly cater to the trim trade. Every grocery store in the infamous “Green Triangle” has displays featuring Fiskars and Chikamasas (two of the more popular brands of scissors), as well as rubber gloves, rubbing alcohol, specialized trays, and other such trim-related accoutrements. There are usually even a few scruffy hippie kids flying signs along the highway: “Have scissors, will travel.”

The upshot of all this is that growers are tightening their belts. And the downshot for trimmers is that most places are passing the losses on to their staff. When I first got started the standard rate was $250 per pound, and more often than not you got three hots and a cot, plus amenities. One place I used to work at had a full-time gourmet chef on the payroll, and there was always a keg tapped. This year I worked for $150 per pound and I liked it. (I got $175 at the places where we bought our own food.)

That still comes out to like $300 per day for me. Which doesn’t suck. Though it’s important to remember that the situation is fluid, and you don’t always end up achieving your most optimistic projections. You can’t count your money while you’re sitting at the table. The next several bins could be bullshit, or five more new people might suddenly swoop down on your scene, and then it won’t last as long as predicted.

It kind of feels like the end of an era, in any event. Trimming machines are getting better, for starters, though their output will always need a bit of skilled going-over.

On the consumer side, people are starting to vape more cannabis extracts, for which trimming is unnecessary. Some say that it’s the future, and I can understand where they’re coming from. You can vape almost anywhere. It’s not nearly as smelly, and you can at least partially mask the distinctive odor with a wide range of flavors. For the most part a vape pen can be carried through airports and such without incident. Even cops almost never look twice at them. (Though I expect this to change as more and more spaceships start floating around.) And while the jury is still out about bases like propylene glycol, habitual vaping may well turn out to be at least a tiny bit healthier than just inhaling some burning plant matter in the long run. There are already entrepreneurs making personalized vape juice where the customer gets to set the THC/CBD slider precisely where they want it to be.

A bunch of my former trim buddies have started hashing instead, moving from scene to scene making shatter out of the left-over trimmings. I guess that it’s vastly more profitable, at least at present. But I don’t want to have to huff butane.

The pay rates will eventually go down with the risk, until it really is pretty much just like any other migrant farm job. Of course there’s still money to be made by selling pot out of state. It’s way riskier, though, which is precisely why there’s still so much money in it. After all, prohibition artificially inflates the prices of vices; an invaluable boon to the mafia, and to gangsters of all stripes, who can’t function without it. So for the most part I think we should drop it.

There are some nice Northern California families who will have to adapt, though, or find another line of work. Just as I’m sure that lots of moonshiners were sad about the 21st Amendment. And there will be elements of the prison-industrial complex that will have to make major adjustments in the absence of a regular influx of minor drug offenders to enslave. Though for some reason I feel a little less sorry for them.

I hope that business as usual has a few more good years in it. Otherwise I might have to get a real job. And then how would I find the time to keep writing essays for you, or to help people out at those festivals?

It really is a conundrum. But in the end I would rather suffer the birth pangs of liberty than continue to profit from systematic oppression.

It sure has been great while it’s lasted, though!

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