Trimmigrants: What It's Like to Be a California Weed Trimmer

Every harvest season -- which in California lasts from August through the end of October -- thousands of  “trimmigrants” flock to the lush, rugged Emerald Triangle (also known as Humboldt, Mendocino, and Trinity counties) wielding scissors and camping equipment. These seasonal, often transient workers come to cash in on California’s multi-billion dollar green rush and trim huge stocks of cannabis into perfect, crystallized buds.

Ever wonder what happened to that weed before it was delivered to your doorstep (after you received your medical marijuana recommendation via FaceTime)? Here’s the low-down on the gig that’s responsible for keeping leaves and twigs out of your pipe.

marijuana plant

Trimmers are a very important part of the cannabis business

Cannabis grows in big cone-like clusters called colas that look like the one above. 

While that might look like enough weed to smoke out your whole neighborhood, it’s not entirely fit for consumption. It’s the trimmer’s job to remove all the leaves, dry spots, mold, and other damaged areas from the colas.

After it’s dried, cured, and (if it’s the high-end, sustainably grown Swami Select strand from collective Flow Kana, put into mason jars tied with string), it’s most likely delivered via an app -- just in time for a Ganja Yoga Class, because that is life in 2016 in San Francisco.

Trimmers are an integral part of the harvesting -- and ultimately the selling -- process, especially in today’s cannabis connoisseur market. As brands advertise beautiful, brightly colored buds on social media and dispensaries showcase the product under glass like rare gemstones, it’s more important than ever that buds are as manicured as Kim Kardashian’s baby toenail.

Trimmers are also responsible for removing dead bugs from your weed. Although it sounds gross, dead bugs are a sign the grower is using natural and sustainable growing practices versus spraying the plants with harsh and harmful pesticides.

“If you don't find bug corpses on the outdoor weed you trim, you can bet they were spraying something harmful,” said Rae Johnson, who’s trimmed at several operations in the Santa Cruz area. Just another reminder to only smoke lab-tested and hold weed-growers to the same standards as those who grow your fruits and veggies.

Legal workers trim illegal products  

Anecdotally, these trimmigrants are often young drifters, willing to risk life and limb for a job that allows them to smoke on the job and delivers serious, untaxed green -- both cash and bud.

While legal operations are required to document workers, the demographics of underground farms are mostly anecdotal (according to a Broadly essay, illegal farms account for the majority of cannabis grown in the Emerald Triangle). Although trimmigrants come from all over the world, research shows the average trimmer is a 20-something white male and a US citizen. The same Broadly essay described trimming as a traditionally female role, often referred to as “trim bitch,” while men are overwhelmingly responsible for the grows and distribution of the product.

Humboldt State anthropology professor Fred Krissman notes that the largest illegal crop market is made up almost entirely of legal citizens (oh, the irony). This stat is a stark contrast to the larger farmworker population -- NPR reports that 40 to 50% are undocumented workers, while USDA surveys found that 68% of farm workers in the United States were born in Mexico.

There are also a fair amount of mom-and-pop shops that operate legally, and work to maintain California’s sustainable farming values. At Ganja Ma Gardens, a small farm in Mendocino that produces Swami Select cannabis, Nikki Lastreto oversees two to three employees who are close friends and family local to Mendocino. Lastreto has been cultivating the plant since 1997 and said the small operation is partly by design.

Small-batch weed is better quality, she said, and Mendocino County only allows farms 99 plants, which tend to produce anywhere between 1 and 5lbs of weed each. This year Ganja Ma Gardens cultivated 72 plants using organic growing methods (though there’s not yet a FDA designation for organic cannabis); they even arrange the plants according to “sacred geometry” called the Sri Yantra from the Hindu Tradition.  

trimming marijuanas
Eric Limon/Shutterstock

Trimmers get paid by the pound

Trimmers are generally paid by the pound of trimmed flowers. While the rate changes year-to-year depending on how much the seller can get from a dispensary, the 2016 standard is around $150 per pound in Humboldt and Mendocino counties. A fast trimmer can get through about a pound per day, working eight hours. Some trimmers report working from August until Christmas, making $3,000 per week, but depending on how much weed is grown, the annual haul varies.

Growing and curing methods ultimately determine how quickly a trimmer can get through a stock. Outdoor, sun-grown weed can have really airy buds that may take a long time to trim, Johnson noted. Cannabis is not nearly the cash crop that it once was, though. According to Lastreto, weed was sold by growers for $4,000 a pound in the ‘90s, and the trimmers made more as a result.  A report from 2015 stated trimmers used to earn closer to $300-$500/lb.

Still, some trimmers report making an entire year’s income from working a single harvest -- which might be enough to motivate a young person to follow a stranger into California’s backwoods.

Trimming isn’t all fun, games, and getting high

According to the 352 missing persons Humboldt County reported last year alone, trimming in the Emerald Triangle isn’t exactly the stoner summer camp young artists and wanderers might expect.

While the increase in the number of legal operations and greater regulations (cultivation is legal in both Humboldt and Mendocino counties) have made trimming a safer endeavor, there’s still a strong undercurrent of crime and an air of secrecy still pervades. Trimmers might not fear getting busted by the cops anymore if they’re working for a legal operations, but home invasions by thieves are not uncommon at large operations.

And then there’s the sexual harassment that runs the gamut from “creepy” to criminal. The CIIS recently reported on the rampant sexual abuse endured by female trimmers every year who rarely receive legal recourse. And though Johnson had mostly positive experiences at the many farms she worked at, she recalled male-dominated business practices that would even make the men of Mad Men cringe.

“I can admit to finding a grower who seemed nice then he took me into the trim room and there were girls there (one of which who could not have been older than 14) were all trimming shirtless in their bras. I walked right back out again and didn't look back,” she said.

Extreme caution and self-reliance is required of all trimmers, especially women, as they wait for legalization to usher in greater protections for cannabis workers and consumers alike. Alternet also reported dangerous trimming conditions, including foreign trimmers who had their passports stolen, and “growers not paying them and throwing them off the farm.”

But even the most on-the-up sellers aren’t exactly offering a cushy job. Many trimmers work hunched 10-12 hours per day, sleep outside, and are in remote areas cut off from most amenities, like cell service, and isolated for months at a time. The same Alternet article reported that regular trimmers’ (those who trim for multiple harvests) hands can get calloused and crippled, and there is also a higher incidence of carpal tunnel.

Ganja Ma Gardens farm, by contrast, houses their medical-card carrying employees in what Lastreto calls "fancy tents" -- 12x15 spaces furnished with carpets, raised beds, and lights. When it gets cold, trimmers can move into a guest dorm room.

These legally operating farms are under stricter and stricter regulations: Lastreto files W-2s for trimmers, must disinfect the trim areas daily, and has installed gates to keep animals out of the trim room. Aside from the hair nets now required by law, Lastreto describes trimming as glamping or a WWOOF-like experience, complete with all-you-can-eat fresh, organic food and sacred statues meant to protect the farm.

marijuana trimmings

Getting a trimming job is tricky

Scoring a trimming gig is all about who you know, and Johnson advises that trimmers should only work for growers that have been vetted by someone they trust. Ganja Ma Gardens is selective when it comes to choosing trimmers, but the nature of the connected community means that a few introductions could lead a trimmer to a gig that keeps delivering for harvests to come.

Some trimmigrants flood the tiny towns “up North” without jobs lined up touting signs with scissors drawn on them along roads, hoping a grower will pluck them out of the masses and give them a job. But whether they’re filling out paperwork with a trusted grower or following strangers into forests the for an illegal job, trimmers abide by the unspoken rule: BYOS (bring your own scissors).

No one knows what the future holds

The trimming business may change if Californians vote to legalize recreational marijuana in November, though no one is sure how and the Proposition 64 legislation doesn’t touch on the subject. Should Prop 64 pass, growing will be “complicated and expensive,” PBS reported. Growers can expect to pay fees to the county and the state, as well as income and payroll taxes, and workers compensation insurance.

If recreational weed is legalized and the industry becomes regulated, tired and achy trimmers may get some relief. Alternet suggest that the risk of carpal tunnel, which may result from hours spent trimming colas, could be lessened by “well-timed, workplace-mandated breaks” similar to those in other agricultural businesses.

Should their pains persist off the farm, those trimmers might have easier access to a strain of Indica that will ease their sore limbs.

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Amy Copperman is a writer in San Francisco. Follow her on Twitter. @acoppergirl