Pubdate: Sun, 22 Nov 2015
Source: Press Democrat, The (Santa Rosa, CA)
Copyright: 2015 The Press Democrat
Author: Glenda Anderson


WILLITS - Except for traffic passing through on Highway 101, this
northern Mendocino County city is relatively quiet much of the year.
But for three months in the fall, it gets an influx of world travelers
lured by marijuana-trimming jobs, temporarily swelling the town's
population of under 5,000 and instilling it with an international flavor.

They're called trimmigrants and they are an integral part of the North
Coast's lucrative marijuana industry, estimated to be worth billions
of dollars and widely considered to be a major economic driver in
Mendocino and Humboldt counties. But, like the pot industry itself,
reaction to their presence is mixed. The migrant workers contribute to
the economy, but many effectively are homeless. Though the growers who
employ them typically provide housing or a place to camp, when not
working, they camp illegally in parks, alleys and along railroad
tracks and rivers. Some can't find jobs and turn to panhandling and
frequenting food banks.

The annual march of migrant marijuana workers has occurred for years
throughout the pot-rich North Coast, from Sonoma County to the Oregon
border and beyond during the traditional fall cannabis harvest season,
which runs roughly from mid-September through the end of November. The
phenomenon has gained a worldwide reputation, and now draws an
international crowd to rural places that are not on the usual tourist
guide list.

"It's really a kind of fascinating phenomenon," Willits City
Councilwoman Holly Madrigal said.

At a local pub on a recent evening, German, French, Italian and
Spanish accents could be heard among the conversations as about two
dozen foreigners gathered to meet up with fellow travelers or play

"It's a melting pot," said a man from Spain who gave his name only as
Paolo. Like most of the foreign trimmigrants interviewed for this
article, he said he's working in the cannabis industry to earn enough
to continue traveling the world. He also works as a freelance
photographer and online graphic designer.

Most know before they arrive where to go to find work - typically
outside supermarkets and natural food stores that potential employers
are known to frequent in search of laborers. Those places include the
Wal-Mart in Ukiah and Safeway in Willits.

They also know about local hangouts where they can find each

A man from Germany said he didn't know two of his friends were even in
the United States when he ran into them at the Schanachie Pub on
Willits' main drag, where customers are invited to mark their home
countries on world maps already thickly covered in sticky dots.

The owner of the pub declined to be interviewed.

Trimming cannabis is tedious work - requiring hours of sitting and
repetitive motion - but it's not difficult to learn and it pays well.

Using special tiny scissors sold in hardware stores throughout the
North Coast, trimmers earn anywhere from $100 to $200 per pound of
finished product, snipping out the unwanted leaves from the resin-rich
cannabis buds, which contain most of the plant's medicinal and
intoxication values.

"If you are really, really fast, you can trim two pounds a day," maybe
more, said Eric, 30, of Guatemala, as he stood outside the Willits
Safeway with his backpack, sleeping bag and Argentinian traveling
companion, Sol.

Like most others in the trimming business, they would not reveal their
full names, an acknowledgment that marijuana laws remain murky, at
best, rendering trimmers subject to possible arrest. Legitimate
medicinal marijuana cooperatives aren't supposed to pay employees, so
most of the hired hands likely are working for people who also are
growing marijuana illegally.

Ukiah attorney Bob Boyd over the years has defended a number of
foreign trimmigrants snagged in law enforcement actions.

"They get their passports seized. I get a call from mom and dad back
home," he said.

Trimmigrants normally don't want future employers or their families to
know about their temporary jobs in the underground industry. Most of
the foreigners also lack permits to legally work in the country.

The influx of foreign trimmigrants has exploded in the past few

"This trimmigrant thing has become huge," said Tim Blake, founder of
the Emerald Cup, the North Coast's premier annual pot judging contest
and festival, being held this year on Dec. 12 and 13 at the Sonoma
County Fairgrounds. Blake also heads a Laytonville-based marijuana

There are no hard or official statistics available on the number of
marijuana processors working in the underground industry.

"These figures are almost impossible to assess due to the secretive
nature of the cannabis industry," said Jason Valentin, vice president
of the Humboldt Medical Cannabis Union, a grass-roots organization
whose stated goals include protecting the quality of life for medical
cannabis workers in Humboldt County. He estimates the number of
year-round marijuana workers in Humboldt County at between 7,000 and
12,000 and that, as a group, they earn between $150 million and $320
million annually, generating a significant impact on the economy.

Blake estimates it takes about 150,000 people to trim California's
annual pot crop, which he believes is worth around $15 billion, based
on his knowledge of the industry and reports on its size. About half
the trimmers are in Northern California, the state's richest
cannabis-growing region, and at least half of those are from outside
of the United States, Blake said.

He figures they each spend $1,000 while they're in Northern
California, adding up to about a $7 million contribution to the local
economy, he said.

Blake said he doesn't hire trimmers - members of his co-op work in
exchange for their medical marijuana - but he hosts music events that
are widely attended by trimmigrants at his Area 101 events venue north
of Laytonville.

He's noticed a change in the trim workers in the last few years. They
previously tended to be local residents and people who followed the
music festival circuit, then stayed on the North Coast at the end of
the festival season to process pot.

The newcomers tend to be educated, hard workers who also cook and
clean. Some marijuana farmers prefer them over locals, some of whom
act as though they're entitled to high pay and free meals, Blake said.

"They wanted to be fed and treated like they were royalty," he said.
The attitude has prompted some growers to switch to mechanical
harvesting, but it's not as effective as hand trimming, Blake said.

When the foreigners showed up, they quickly became popular among

"They think $150 a pound is great. They cook," Blake

But he doesn't expect their jobs to survive new marijuana regulations
aimed at taxing and regulating cannabis.

"Most of them probably don't have work permits," Blake

Valentin said he'd like to see a local, stable, above-board workforce
that earns decent wages and benefits in a safe environment. Currently,
it's not always that way. Trimmers have been ripped off, sexually
harassed and shot by employers, according to police reports and area
residents. Some have disappeared. Growers also have been subject to
robberies and other crime.

"That Wild West analogy, I think it's apt," Valentin

The surge of trimmigrants in general has some downsides.

There are too many of them now, creating a glut of workers in the
cannabis industry. Some are believed to wind up on the streets,
loitering, camping illegally and panhandling.

"There's certainly a negative aspect to it," Madrigal said of the
trimmer migration. Most of the vagrants spotted in recent weeks along
the Highway 101 corridor in Mendocino and Humboldt counties did not
appear to be foreign-born, but a few were.

Eugene, 28, who hails from France, said he worked as a cannabis
trimmer for several prior seasons. He typically picks fruit in Canada
before heading to California. But this year, he was unable to find
trimming work and became stranded in Willits, dependent on its food
kitchens and the kindness of strangers.

"I have to figure out how to get enough money to get gas to get back
to Canada," he said.

"I don't encourage people to come here for that (trimming pot).
There's too many people," Eugene said.

Cindy Savage, manager of Willits Daily Bread, said her organization
each day feeds as many as 15 people she believes are

Cannabis cultivators are choosy and now apparently prefer to hire
young women, Eugene said. He said a Canadian woman he knows told him
she was sexually harassed and was frightened of her employer.

Willits Police Chief Gerry Gonzalez said there are upticks in
complaints about transients, illegal camping and illegal dumping in
his city during the trimming season. But it's nothing like the
problems plaguing Garberville, in southern Humboldt County.

The problem people there may not be trimmigrants, but police and area
residents believe they have been drawn by the perception of a
permissive pot culture.

"I have been told 'this is the land of buds and honey'" while
confronting troublesome transients, said Beth Allen, 58, a Garberville
restaurant owner and small-scale medicinal marijuana farmer.

Transients are everywhere in Garberville, a tiny town with fewer than
1,000 residents. Dozens have set up a tent city on a hill just outside
of town, dubbed "Hippie Hill."

The problem has given rise to a movement in Garberville to take back
the town from vagrants and drug addicts who vandalize and burglarize
homes and businesses, do hard drugs in public, urinate in the streets
and harass tourists, who are now shunning the town.

"There is a bit of a community revolt," said Humboldt County Sheriff's
Sgt. Jesse Taylor, who is based in Garberville.

Allen said she carries a Taser at all times because she's been
threatened and physically assaulted by vagrants, some apparently on
drugs and acting crazy. Her store also has been vandalized, likely
because she confronts people who act inappropriately in public. She's
also the spokeswoman for the group that has begun patrolling the town,
offering assistance and advice to homeless people and attempting to
get them to leave.

Willits is in good shape by comparison, but some residents are
concerned and the city is split over trimmigration.

"There are people who do not like it at all. There obviously are
others who don't feel the same way," said Lynn Kennelly, director of
the Willits Chamber of Commerce.

Willits Mayor Bruce Burton is not a fan. He believes the trimmigrants
are a negative for the community, potentially deterring the city's
efforts to attract doctors to its new hospital.

"I just don't think it improves the curb appeal of the community,"
Burton said.

He also doubts the trimmers are spending significant amounts of money
in Willits.

Madrigal said she's told by business owners that trimmers do spend
money in local stores and restaurants.

"It doesn't hurt business," said Kevin Bedford, the area director for
the Lumberjacks Restaurant chain.

But the side effects of the phenomenon also cost the city in social
and police services, Madrigal said.

"I think it's going to be a wash" economically, she said.
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