AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
And your word of the day is trimmigant. Let me use it in a sentence. Trimmigrants arrive each fall in Humboldt County, California to work the marijuana harvest. You could say Humboldt is to weed what Napa is to wine. Youth Radio's Olivia Cueva traveled to meet the people prospecting for a job in California's green rush.
OLIVIA CUEVA, BYLINE: OK, in order to understand this story, you need to know what trimming is. Marijuana grows like a huge bush and the flower it produces, that's the marijuana bud. Trimmers manicure the buds, snipping off the leaves and stems then shape them with their scissors. The idea is to make the weed stand out so it sells well at medical marijuana dispensaries and on the street. Garberville, a tiny town of about 900 residents in Humboldt County is swarming with trimmigrants today. There are girls and guys mostly in their 20s with big, bulky backpacks and pit bulls. Many of them look like modern-day hobos. At the far end of town I meet Fermin, a 24-year-old artist from Tennessee. Like all the trimmers I spoke with, Fermin would use only his first name. Trimming for an illegal operation could make him an accessory to a drug crime.
You are traveling - backpack?
CUEVA: Why are you up here?
FERMIN: Well, to look for a trim job.
CUEVA: What's all the hype about? Like, why here?
FERMIN: Well, I heard you could get work pretty easy.
CUEVA: What's the reality?
FERMIN: The reality is it's taking a little bit longer than I expected.
CUEVA: Fermin has been here for about a month and hasn't found any work yet. It's getting colder and the rains are coming. He sleeps in the woods just outside of town and dumpster-dives for food.
FERMIN: (Strumming a guitar) This song is - I wrote this song. I guess it's about Tennessee and raising hell.
CUEVA: Until he finds a job trimming weed, he gets by selling his art and playing music on the street.
FERMIN: (Strumming a guitar and singing) Flying down the Blue Ridge and I'm raising hell. Raising hell.
CUEVA: It's estimated that there are over 100,000 marijuana plants growing in the hills around Humboldt and they all need to be harvested around the same time and processed quickly. So from September through November, it's all hands on deck, and that's where trimmigants, also called scissor drifters, come in. There are even new folk songs being written about them.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SCISSOR DRIFTERS")
CAMO COWBOYS: (Singing) Snip snip here, snip snip there. Scissor drifters everywhere.
CUEVA: Trimmers are paid by the pound and fast trimmers can make $300 to $500 a day in cash, under the table. But of course, if the place where you're trimming gets busted, it could also land you in jail.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SCISSOR DRIFTERS")
COWBOYS: (Singing) Scissors in hand. No resume. They want to clip your pounds today.
CUEVA: Hey. How you doing?
Out in front of the town's main grocery store there's a group of five guys, some in their late teens, sitting on the curb, partially blocking the sidewalk.
Have you ever trimmed before?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: I have, but I'm trying acid.
CUEVA: Oh, OK.
If you didn't catch that, he said he was too high on acid to be interviewed. Some trimmigrants, like Fermin, seem eager to work, but the scene also attracts drifters who hang around looking pretty drugged-out. Locals say that's why European youth often get hired over Americans, who get stereotyped as hippie kids.
KRISTIN NEVEDAL: Yeah, that's the ever-present curb.
CUEVA: Kristin Nevedal says migrant trimmers are everywhere, obstructing local businesses and damaging the river with their squatter camps. Nevedal is a local resident and co-founder of the larger marijuana growers' association in California.
NEVEDAL: This is not the fun vacation thing to do, right? Like, show up in Garberville in the fall and see if you can get a job. We cannot house these people. Like, don't come unless you have a job.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: They made for Highway 66, their path of exodus across mountains and desert to the green promise land, California.
CUEVA: OK, the marijuana harvest is a far cry from the Dust Bowl, but like the Okies, trimmigrants make their way West on the promise of farm work that's hard to come by. According to the county sheriffs, the majority of growers in Humboldt operate illegally so hiring strangers from the side of the road puts growers at risk, and there's risk for trimmers, too. Every year, some go missing. and trimmers have even been killed. They often work in remote areas with no cell phone service or running water, sleeping in tents. And sometimes, they don't even know where they are.
So where are you taking us right now?
TIM BLAKE: I'm taking you to my ranch. I got a 160-acre ranch right here.
CUEVA: Tim Blake has been growing marijuana since the '70s. His collective, Healing Harvest Farms, is just south, in Mendocino County. We're driving up a dirt road in his four-wheel-drive pickup truck.
So this is the garden here?
BLAKE: This is the garden.
CUEVA: This is a small farm, and it's legal. Blake grows 25 plants, which is the county limit for medicinal marijuana, and these plants are huge.
BLAKE: Look at the different colors. See, you've got the purples, and then you've got the dark greens, the light greens.
CUEVA: Blake's marijuana plants look almost like small trees. They're 10 feet high, and he says each one will produce about eight pounds of weed.
BLAKE: Want to smell these? As soon as you squeeze it you can feel the resin on it. It gets right in your fingers. It's like all over it. OK, that's the number-one desired strain in America at this point in our United States of America - is this OG Kush.
CUEVA: Blake brings me to the trim room, where six people, most in their 20s, are sitting in what looks like a living room, snipping away. Out of concern that someone could steal his entire harvest, which is worth almost a quarter-million dollars, Blake only hires trimmers he knows.
BISHMA: You're sitting here all day long.
CUEVA: Bishma is a local who does catering work to support his wife and kids, but during the fall harvest he lives full-time on the farm.
BISHMA: Some people think, oh, I sit eight hours at a job. It's like, we're sitting here 14 hours. And it's the same repetitive motion over and over and over again, so people just go to town and just, like, listen to every music they can.
(SOUNDBITE OF TECHNO MUSIC)
CUEVA: Music is a big part of trimming, and the faster the music, the faster they snip. I watch as their scissors sync with the beat.
(SOUNDBITE OF TECHNO MUSIC AND SCISSORS SNIPPING)
BISHMA: As far as radio goes around here, there's country music, Latino music, and NPR. So for most of us, it's NPR.
CUEVA: Lots of locals depend on marijuana for part of their livelihood. And for young people who come here from all over to trim, it's a job so lucrative that some make all of their money for the year during the three-month harvest. But as laws around the country change, making marijuana legal, analysts say the pay scale is bound to go down, becoming more like any other farm work. And like farm work across the country, marijuana production is already becoming mechanized, gradually making trimmigrants a thing of the past. For NPR News, I'm Olivia Cueva.
(SOUNDBITE OF BANJO MUSIC)
CORNISH: That story comes to us from Youth Radio out of Oakland, California.
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