Marijuana industry Unseen Workforce: the ‘trimmigrants’

Written by Cara Wietstock

This article about the Marijuana Industry was originally posted on the SF Chronicle, it is written by Jonah Raskin.

Paola, 23, came to California for the first time this fall. A native of Mexico City and a pot smoker since she was 15, she worked for 12 weeks as a “trimmer” in California’s multibillion-dollar-a-year marijuana industry — even more legal now after the passage of Proposition 64. But still illegal by federal law.

With a pair of high-tech shears and wearing black, latex gloves to protect her fingers from injury, Paola removed the tiny green leaves from the dried cannabis flowers that would be sold at the BASA Collective, a licensed dispensary on Grove Street in San Francisco. “Lemon Drop,” “Black Bar” and “Gorilla Glue” “Grand Daddy Purple” were some of the brand names.

Paola and her compatriots worked in a large, anonymous warehouse with cement floors and overhead lighting, six days a week, 12 hours a day, from September to December. In the upstairs kitchen, Gaston, an Argentine, cooked delicious meals — roast pork, fried plantains, rice and beans, and lettuce and tomatoes. No one went hungry, and there was barbecue on weekends.

They made between $150 and $300 a day, depending on how much marijuana they processed. Paid in cash on Fridays, they whooped it up.

Known as “trimmigrants” because they’ve immigrated from other countries, they belong to a global culture of marijuana, though in every country local customs obtain. In Mexico, pot is often called mota. In Jamaica, it’s ganja. In Europe, it’s usually mixed with tobacco. In Kolkata, formerly known as Calcutta, India, they smoke it in a clay pipe.

If John Steinbeck were alive, he’d probably add a chapter about the trimmigrants to his epic novel, “The Grapes of Wrath.” Indeed, the Joad family who flees the Dust Bowl of Oklahoma for sunny California would recognize them as kinfolk. Like Tom and Ma Joad, the trimmigrants embody a quiet dignity. Moreover, they’re largely invisible and underappreciated, even by marijuana connoisseurs.

Fred Krissman keeps an eye on them from his perch in the anthropology department at Humboldt State University. “They come for the experience as well as for the American dollar,” he said. “They’re part of the worldwide vagabond movement. Friendly, warm, spiritual and open, they’re often like the hippies of the 1960s. Older people sometimes view them as naive.”

Indeed, Rosalia, who was 24 and from Vera Cruz, Mexico, sounded like she had come straight from Woodstock. “Paz y amor” (peace and love), she chirped.

No one seems to know who coined the word “trimmigrant.” Moreover, while no one has measured the total number of pounds they process, marijuana-industry observers like Krissman say they play an indispensable role in the industry. My own experience tells me that’s true.

I have known about the trimmers since 2011, when High Times published my book, “Marijuanaland: Dispatches from an American War.” After a book-signing in Sebastopol, a woman introduced herself as “Snippy Bitch” and explained that she manicured marijuana flowers or “buds” and made enough money in four months to support herself for 12 months. Then, earlier this year, while researching a story about Prop. 64, the Adult Use of Marijuana Act, I met a group of newly arrived trimmigrants on a large pot farm.

The youngest trimmigrant was 23, the oldest 43. Most of them had been smoking “porros,” or joints, since their teens. They were eager to get to work on the crop, which had already been harvested, dried and cured.

The job of the trimmers was to remove nearly all the small, green leaves, and even the trace of a stem until the buds looked almost unreal and artificial. It was snip, snip and snip again.

The manicured buds were weighed on a scale and the weight (in grams) was recorded in a large binder under each individual’s name. (It takes 453.592 grams to make a pound. That meant hundreds if not thousands of repetitive motions with sharp scissors that had spring action.) The supervisors, both Anglos and Latinos, kept a close eye on the process, and when grams seemed to go missing they complained.

Each trimmer had his, or her, own method. Some stood, others sat. One or two kept to themselves; others joined a circle. The Mexican women clustered; the Argentines sat side by side. A young married couple kept one another company. The trimmers listened to recorded music: to cumbia, which originated in Colombia, and to reggae, too.

“One thing about this job is that you learn to respect other peoples’ music,” the DJ/ trimmer told me. “It’s not always your music that’s playing.”

The trimmigrants lived in tents not far from the warehouse. The tents were state-of-the-art, but living in a comfortable tent gets old quickly even for veteran backpackers, especially when it’s 40 degrees at night and it rains heavily for days. Next year, there would be a bunkhouse if everything went according to plan — a vast improvement.

The finished “buds” contained almost pure THC; one puff was enough to get a smoker stoned instantly, though most of the trimmers appeared to be more focused and less distracted when they were stoned than when they were “straight.”

The finished product was placed in plastic bags, then sealed, stored in large, airtight containers and transported by truck to San Francisco.

The trimmers were not peasants or the poorest of the poor in their own countries. They were well educated and came from urban, middle-class families. They were also far more seasoned travelers than the hipsters from Brooklyn, N.Y., who arrive in Northern California hoping to find employment and go home with tales from the marijuana frontier.

Curiously, Natasha from Mexico City didn’t smoke marijuana; it made her paranoid. An environmentalist, she taught chemistry and biology and worried about global warming and endangered species. She planned to use her hard-earned cash to rock climb in Yosemite and hike in Sequoia national parks.

Carlos, a young Colombian and the spitting image of Jimi Hendrix, explained that his Bogota family would have supported him. “Marijuana enables me to be independent of my parents,” he said.

Idealistic and a dreamer, he was happy that Colombia had legalized both marijuana and same-sex marriage and that the government had finally reached a peace accord with the guerrillas after years of fighting.

The Swedes — Magnus, Mimi and Oscar — hoped to make enough money to buy a van that they would drive to music festivals around Stockholm where they would sell fruit juices and raw foods. “There’s a large middle class in Sweden with disposable income, and there’s a niche for us,” Magnus said. By the time I met him and his companions, they had already worked briefly in Humboldt County.

“I was sitting on the sidewalk in Garberville with a sign that said, ‘Trimmigrant’ and a man stopped in a pickup truck and shouted, ‘get in,’” Mimi explained. With a smile, she added, “I didn’t.” In an old Volvo, she and Oscar drove to Santa Cruz, where they found work and kindly souls.

Magnus wrote to his parents, “I’m learning the value of money, and I’m meeting people who hope to make their fortunes. Everything, from the trees to the trucks, is so big here. I imagine what it was like for the ’49ers who came for gold. I call what’s happening here ‘The Cannabis Rush.’”

Paola and Rosalia, who carried all their belonging in their backpacks, wanted to make enough money to continue their adventure.

Margarita grew up in Juarez, Mexico, just across the border from El Paso, Texas, and as a young woman wandered from the straight-and-narrow and got into trouble. Working as a trimmigrant for three months provided the cash for her and her son to live comfortably for a year, though it wasn’t “easy money.” Trimming 12 hours a day, six days a week for a season took its toll on body and soul. “It’s not a healthy lifestyle,” she said.

Erika from Bavaria, Germany, was probably the most environmentally aware of the trimmigrants I met. “Marijuana sucks a lot out from the Earth,” she said. “A lot of people grow it and don’t give back. That’s not good.” She added, “I’m not that much of a smoker, and I’m not that crazy about trimming because it’s repetitive, and the brain just turns off. The best thing to do is treat it as meditation.”

The trimmigrants faced long journeys by bus, train and air before they would arrive home for the holidays. I only had a few miles from the warehouse to reach my house, though in many ways I felt I had been in another country where English was the second language and the citizens came from around the world. Would I ever see them again? Perhaps not.

Still, I knew that I would not forget them, and I liked to think they would not forget me. “Mi casa es su casa,” Margarita said, and I felt she meant it.

All of us had come a long way in a short season. Natalie, a fashion designer from Mexico City, said, “We’ve known what to share with others and what not to share. We’ve watched one another’s backs.”

No one had been arrested from this arm in the marijuana industry, and the crop had not been confiscated by cops or stolen by thieves, both real possibilities. The farmer who supervised the field work told me, “It’s been a steep learning curve for us all, but I’d say that this has been a very successful season.” A San Francisco pot smoker who bought an ounce of the weed that had been processed by the trimmigrants raved about the buds. “They’re beautiful,” she said. “They’re works of art. You can tell somebody cared.”

About the author

Cara Wietstock

Cara began working in the retail cannabis industry of San Francisco, CA in 2011 and continued in that sector for years. In 2015 she dedicated herself to writing full-time. Her passion for the written word and deep respect for the healing properties of the plant have brought her to Terpenes and Testing magazine. She now helps keep us on the cutting edge of scientific cannabis discovery as the Editor-in-Chief of the print publication.

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