People have been growing marijuana in Hayfork for generations. Some have made their living this way for decades. Some have farmed to supplement their income, and some just for personal supply. In the rising arc of the weed boom, more and different types of farmers have arrived, adding layers to their demographics and numbers to their ranks.
Now such a large portion of the population is producing marijuana that growers are integrated into many, maybe most, aspects of the community— as neighbors, store owners, parents of school children, volunteers, and members of clubs and organizations. The end result is that many people straddle two worlds, living otherwise typical lives while flirting with the risks of illegal industry– farming, selling on the black market, negotiating the transport and sales of product, the handling of black market income.
Marijuana is no longer simply a trade for brazen activists or large-scale, profiteering criminals, although both are still present. An industry that was once the territory of drug cartels and illicit drug dealers is now saturated with everyday people. Marijuana growers are retirees and single moms, they provide the second income in two-income families, they are parents and grandparents. For those living it, the navigation of the black market has become domesticated.
For some, marijuana cultivation is a solution to the imposition of economic hardship, such as retirees and out of work loggers who turn to the marijuana growing industry to help supplement their income. For these people, their circumstances don’t offer many alternatives, and not having access to this income would drop them into poverty.
“Instead of living, you’re existing,” Dan says of what his life would be like without the income provided by growing. Dan is a logger who looks to marijuana to supplement his income, and to help provide work for his retired father.
“Even when I’ve worked it was seasonal,” he says, “and so when you work a seasonal job you’re still only gonna make something like $17,000 dollars a year, that’s not even $2000 a month gross, and you can exist on that but you can’t live on it … growing was definitely a way to give myself some of the better things, and give myself more opportunities.”
For others, it can be a way to grasp a middle class life when it wouldn’t otherwise be possible. Parents might gain the ability to provide music lessons or other opportunities for their children. Couples may gain the ability to purchase land that would have otherwise been inaccessible to them. Growers represent a spectrum of lifestyles and backgrounds– career travelers, artists, arrivals from cities seeking a way to support a rural lifestyle, or those with careers that don’t pay well enough to provide financial security.
There are many circumstances that motivate someone to start growing, but the common thread is one in which the gains are seen to outweigh the risk. Sam is a college graduate who’s been growing marijuana for several years. After college, he couldn’t get a job and was living on $800 a month delivering furniture and thinking about getting a master’s degree.
“I was studying for the LSATs,” he says, “I was going to try and get into law school. I was also studying for a GRE to have a backup; I was thinking of going for a master’s in architecture. I was trying to do a lot and, you know, I wasn’t really motivated. I wasn’t really motivated because right now the job market is so terrible. I could go back to school for architecture, for example, and get a degree and pay thousands upon thousands of dollars, and not get a job, and still be delivering furniture, mattresses.”
It was then that a friend called and offered him a job. “I just happened to know somebody that was out here (in Hayfork), and I happened to need an opportunity,” Sam says, “I wasn’t happy where I was, and my friend came out of nowhere and he was like ‘I need some help would you want to come out?’ And I was at crossroads in life, so I came out.”
It has been just shy of 20 years since the passing of proposition 215, and the industry has transitioned from an era of swat team busts and secrecy to one of considerably reduced risk. In the past, what is now a comparatively tiny garden of six plants would have garnered jail time. Now, gardens of several hundred plants won’t even necessarily lead to a criminal record.
As the context has changed, the way people relate to the industry has also changed. Pot farming has a cultural heritage linked to its changing legal position. The passing of Prop 215 has it’s roots in counterculture and political activism, but in the emerging legitimacy that has followed, farming isn’t necessarily tied to political objectives anymore.
“If you think of (people in their 30s & 40s),” says Joseph, a long term farmer, “if their parents were involved in pot, it was counterculture or criminal activity. People younger may not have the same exposure, because it’s been post 215 since they were four years old. There’s a generational difference.”
Marijuana is becoming more legitimate, and the commonality of the black market has made illegal activity in this context more acceptable. By and large, growers don’t believe marijuana should be illegal: they are breaking a law they don’t believe in. And this creates the comfort, to a needed degree, with the black market, even if the terms aren’t ideal.
While there are many variations amongst farmers, all have accepted the inherent risks of life as a black market marijuana grower. The profit is burdened by the fears and stresses of getting caught, and carries with it a host of other uncertainties about future livelihood.
The profitability of the marijuana trade isn’t guaranteed. Weed can be a springboard to higher income brackets, but isn’t necessarily. As more and more people are participating, there has been an increase of supply that has dropped prices. Growers report that a pound of weed that formerly netted $4000 today sells for much less; $1200 is a common price, and pounds can even go for as little as $800, a drastic drop in profitability.
Variables in output, the expenses of farming, the costs of paying work crews, and the ability to sell at a decent price all take their toll on profit. As any farmer knows, there are many opportunities during the raising of a crop for things to go wrong, and for your profit margin to shrink.
And as any black market grower knows, there is also ample opportunity to be outdone by the perils of illegal drug trade– busts, theft, robberies, short-changing, and rip-offs are real risks. All these variables drive home an often hard-learned truth about the marijuana industry: it’s profitability really varies.
In Hayfork there is such a spectrum of skill, connections, and participation that the income growing brings can range from supplemental income on par with a minimum wage job, to hundreds of thousands a year. Some have relatively small gardens of 40 or so plants, and some have larger operations that include multiple gardens spread across several properties.
With production thriving, the industry isn’t as accessible to newcomers, especially those who are low-income. Land is a key barrier for many. Those who lived in poverty prior to the boom may have lacked the resources to purchase or access a plot of land to farm on. As marijuana continued booming, farm-friendly plots of land, now in high demand, dramatically rose in price. In the marijuana-flush subdivision of Trinity Pines, an acre of undeveloped land averaged a price of $3,403 in 2004. In 2015, the average price per acre had climbed to $51,744.
“I was just coming from living in the Bay Area where I had to move from place to place because of people with more money,” says Eliza, a long-term farmer, of her arrival in Hayfork, “Gentrification basically. And it felt like that in The Pines (Trinity Pines) after awhile. There was this new group of people with way more money.”
It is increasingly hard to thrive in the industry, especially for the poorest members of the community. Hard pressed to lift themselves out of poverty, they are more likely to work as laborers in some capacity—mirroring their position in the legitimate economy.
Even for those who have broken into the industry and are successful, long term economic security is still in question. How long a person can continue to make their income through black market trade is an unknown. Shifts in the political landscape translate to economy– what happens with legalization will determine the viability of the legitimate and black markets.
For many this is a cause for concern. The future is uncertain, and transitioning out of the weed trade can be challenging. Marijuana production fosters a certain set of skills that don’t translate to many other industries, and the adjustment from a grower lifestyle to lawful work is rough. For people who leave the industry and attempt to return to formal life, they may emerge from the ether after years or decades of work in informal markets. For many it’s a real possibility that they will quit farming life in their thirties, and attempt to return to the workforce without a job on their resumes since their twenties.
For the faction of community members who are advocating for farming, the response to these uncertainties is to shape the development of the legitimate pot economy. In line with the larger political scene, local voices in Hayfork are advocating for regulatory policies that will support the existing economy through legal production and create a tenable industry for small-scale farmers.
These politically active growers are attempting to build a bridge to the future, and at the same time shore up dismantled communities. With an understanding that the path to legitimacy must include regulation, environmental sustainability, and community cohesion, their visions promote farming that achieves these objectives. How they are able to mobilize and successfully advocate for their goals will play a role in what options are available to them over time.
For others, they are waiting it out in various ways– working to set themselves up in preparation for market crashes, growing more while it’s still profitable and low-risk, or just watching to see what happens next. Their futures are tied to the unstable currents of the marijuana economy and the outcomes of regulation. For marijuana growers, it is an era of uncertainty, and they wait while their community is on the bleeding edge of marijuana policy.