California’s artisanal cannabis farms were supposed to help build the legal market. Then the bottom fell out

The pace of North San Juan, CA has changed. The locals, all 151 as of the last census, still grab coffee or bite to eat at The Ridge Cafe or Mama’s Pizzeria and pick up dirt and start at Sweetland Garden Mercantile. Everyone still knows everyone, and the small town still has its own version of the hustle and bustle.

But the annual influx of seasonal cannabis farm workers is a thing of the past. Known locally as “trimming migrants,” throngs of energetic youngsters passed by each year to trim the shoots of the plants, once so prolific in the area’s monoculture gardens.

Another way to visualize the shift to “the ridge,” as the area between the middle and south fork of the Yuba River is known, is through Google Maps or a real estate site like Trulia. Zoom in using the satellite view to find a variety of garden beds and greenhouses hidden in the woods; look for available properties and look at all those who advertise the place as having a “complete garden infrastructure”.

This is the consequence of California Proposition 64. In November 2016, the state legalized the cultivation and regulated the sale of marijuana. And while it seemed to present an opportunity for the quiet backbone of this and many other local economies in California, the actual effects of regulation presented a very different cautionary tale.

In the fall of 2022, Nevada County, which stretches from California’s central valley to the state line with Nevada, counted less than 20 acres of canopy of cannabis cultivation in 112 assigned permits. Darlene Markey, owner of Sweetland Garden Mercantile, knew of 25 local growers who registered with the county and tried to make a living growing and selling cannabis legally; today, she can only think of four who are actively growing and selling produce. Those who kept their business on the black market have fared no better, she says.

According to the dozen growers I spoke to for this story, new regulations, not to mention plummeting prices for commercial grow operations, have effectively locked them down. The government has implemented a series of THC and pesticide potency tests that growers find arduous and often capricious. Even building codes seemed intended to prevent black market growers from making the transition to legality; all buildings on a growing property must have full permits. While this is a standard requirement for any legal business, the producers had kept their operation under the radar; complying with the new regulations meant a sudden investment of big dollars.

“I was excited at first,” says Markey. “I thought a lot of these guys might finally have legal jobs. But it backfired on everyone.”

Sweetland Mercantile Garden. Photography by Caleb Garling.

crest life

Marijuana cultivation in the Ridge, an area I have called home since 2020, dates back at least to the 1960s, when farmers looking to escape city life became interested in the psychoactive plant. Growing fruits and vegetables in the Sierra Foothills comes with numerous environmental challenges (late frosts, pests, armies of deer and gophers), but the copious summer sun and the supply of springs and streams meant that the weeds, if you will, were a relatively easy cultivation.

But in the early 1990s, the area began to see gardens move to higher production levels. Growers still had no legal cover for medicinal use and had to work under the canopy in complete secrecy. But the reward was high. A pound of dried marijuana, which can be harvested from a plant or two, could sell for upwards of $6,000, a lot of money anywhere, but especially in a rural area that depends on the ups and downs of mining, logging, and ranching.

Pat, who spent 15 years as a grower on the Ridge and, like the other former growers in this story, chose to use a pseudonym to protect his employment opportunities, calls the early ’90s on the Ridge an “off-the-beaten-path time.” very risky law.” when “people had to grow many plants to get a modest return”.

Then, in 1996, California legalized marijuana for medical use. Finding a doctor who could write a “prescription” to legitimize a crop was trivial, and in the early 2000s, word spread that there was money to be made in those hills. The area was soon flooded with operations growing their six allotted plants.

“The county had a different feeling then,” says Pat. “We would take our crews for the end-of-year celebrations and fill the restaurants. It was loose and free and although the old guard curmudgeons publicly complained about marijuana, it did attract some bad energy, they knew it was a cash cow.”

Money flowed not only for the local economy but also for temporary workers. Trimming migrants handy with a pair of scissors (there is a technique for cutting buds correctly) could earn up to $1,000 in a day. The vibe, however, was much less migrant worker and much more Burning Man partying. The average stylish migrant tended to be young, carefree, in their late 20s, from the US, Europe, Israel, and prosperous parts of Central America and from the South, who used the proceeds as a launching pad for more adventures abroad.

“I could earn in two weeks what I would spend in a year,” an ex-migrant using the name “Conway” told me.

Conway eventually used the proceeds to start his own farming operation. He and his crews would spend scorching summer afternoons agonizing over soil quality, staking plants, trapping pests, fixing irrigation systems and all the other ins and outs to maximize plant yields, then blowing off steam at night, betting along the banks of the Yuba River to take a bath or plan your next trip.

“I saw so many people attached to the farming lifestyle,” says Conway, “despite the market.”

Getting ready for harvest season at Hill Craft Farms. Photography courtesy of @hill_craft_farmsnc

not so easy

The image comes across as some kind of libertarian Wild West fun, and for many it was, but there were consequences. Most of the growers had stories of break-ins, robberies, and plant thefts; there is the infamous story of a kidnapping and deadly car chase on Highway 49. I had heard rumors of mob henchmen and cartels, and while such characters probably got involved downriver, no one I spoke to could substantiate the idea that they were causing trouble on the ridge.

“Everything was decentralized and hidden,” says Pat. “So the big gangs and the mafia didn’t have any central pressure points where they could extort or lean on people.”

Law enforcement had a similar problem, but were more active in addressing it. Even though the grow operations were legal in the eyes of the state, federal law enforcement, whose laws supersede state law, under the US Constitution and intent to distribute a Schedule 1 Substance.

“People we knew went under every year,” says Pat. “Whether in raids or for sale and transportation. The county and the feds were aggressive and relentless. It was a goal-rich environment. I spent a while on my knees in the driveway with an AR15 to my head. [Law enforcement] I loved doing that kind of stuff.”

Photography courtesy of @hill_craft_farmsnc

sow the light

The complete abandonment of cannabis cultivation was not entirely due to legalization; the way cannabis was cultivated also went through a seismic shift. Light deprivation, or “dép de luz”, is the practice of planting in the winter months, as opposed to May and June, and allowing the plant to grow for only a short period of time, perhaps eight weeks. The growers then simulate shorter days, in other words, they simulate autumn, protecting the plant from the sun and inducing it to flower early. (The cannabis flower is what is harvested and smoked.)

This drastically changed the economics of the sale. Usually, the market is flooded with supply during the fall harvest. As such, the prices tended to be the lowest. But if a grower was “smart or capable,” as a former grower using the name “Paul” told me, he would hold onto his product until winter or spring, and sell it when prices had risen again due to declining of the offer. . Conway, for example, would bury his crop in the woods for months until he was ready to sell.

But because Light Dep didn’t need all summer to grow, cannabis began to flood the market in the off months. With less scarcity, the price recovery weakened and the price curve flattened. In addition, Paul says, marijuana connoisseurs, especially those in the clubs, began to prefer shallow undergrowth on which it grows in natural cycles.

“Yeah,” Conway complains when I ask how the technique changed the business, “the depth of light screwed things up.” Essentially, he says, “people got addicted to cool.”

Whats Next

Many of the producers I spoke to have embraced the change like anyone else in life; they have returned to their former vocations as yoga instructors, builders, loggers, and herbalists. Pat returned to his job as a music technician, Paul as a lawyer; Conway now sells solar energy systems.

Here and there, I found some resentment among the former cultivators for the lack of public protest for their cause. Despite the fact that so many Californians and Americans condone or use marijuana, there is a sense of merit that many of them find when describing their history. “They treated us like criminals,” a producer told me.

There’s also overwhelming frustration with the county. According to the growers, county planners and legislators made the appearance of considering their transition to legality but, in the end, issued regulations that catered to commercial farms with large investment capital.

The Cooper brothers. Photography courtesy of @hill_craft_farmsnc

Daniel Cooper and his twin brother David have made the leap from black market growers to running the top board Artisanal Hill Farms today. “They pulled the rug out from under us,” she says.

One of the deepest frustrations I’ve heard is that growers have to sell to dispensaries, instead of being able to sell directly from their farms. Reminiscent of the “three-tier system” of alcohol distribution, where breweries and distilleries must sell to a third-party distributor to reach stores and restaurants, the state argues that close monitoring of a psychoactive substance is the rule. Still, it’s a hard pill to swallow when California highways are lined with stands selling fruits and vegetables, not to mention the legions of microbreweries in towns and cities.

Sweetland’s Markey hopes that one day the ridge can be a place where connoisseurs come to taste and taste. “They do it in wine country,” she says with a nod toward Napa and Sonoma County. “Why can’t they do it with herbs?”

When we spoke in January, the Cooper brothers said they were close to finding their way in this new world of legal cultivation, even if, like many farmers, the profits are minimal. But they came to the range 16 years ago to do this, and they have no plans to give up now.

“It’s not just about growing up,” says Daniel. “It’s a whole culture. We hold it down because it’s what we love.”