Photography by Sharon Letts
It was as if the local cafe has been lifted out of Garberville and transported to Rome or Paris. Italian is the language at a table of eight with their large backpacks piled in a corner. Nearby, a young couple converse in French, and several other tables are populated with Spanish-speaking travelers. I exchange bemused looks with some other locals. We are definitely outnumbered, but we’ve come to expect surreal experiences like this one every fall, and we all know these passport-toting youths aren’t here to tour the redwoods. They’re part of the seasonal influx of farm worker that have come to be called “trimmigrants”, and they’re looking to make good under-the-table cash turning messy branches of leafy, sticky ganja into neat, sparkling bags of Humboldt buds.
The Musician Trimmigrant
At a local Southern Humboldt music venue, a clarinet and fiddle take turns bolting out a playful Balkan tune over the toe tapping, hip-shaking back beat of the drum and bass. The Eastern European folk dance song builds to a frenzy and ends with a rousing finish. As the crowd hoots and claps, the leader explains, “we just got off the hill.” Everyone nods, knowing exactly what that means this time of year. They’ve been working a trim scene and are jubilant to take a night off and have some fun.
Trim work has allowed many talented artists to focus on their art the rest of the year. Johnny is the bandleader of an eclectic traveling band that plays a mix of Balkan, Klezmer, swing, Americana, and hot jazz. Trimming for three months every year has helped the band tour Europe, Central America, Australia and New Zealand.
“When we perform, we make enough to live and pay for fuel and food, but we’re not getting rich on the road, obviously,” Johnny says on a break between sets. “Trimming has afforded me a way to do what I want without a huge commitment. It’s a good thing for musicians and I have a lot of musician friends that also come out here and do the same thing.”
The work can be intense. Johnny says one season he worked 20 hours a day, but now he works 15-16 hours to trim an average of 2 lbs a day “when it’s decent,” meaning the buds are a good size. He says it takes him between 6-10 hours to trim a pound, and the money assures him he can afford plane tickets to get his band members to the 200 concerts they perform around the globe the rest of the year.
The Activist Trimmigrant
It’s Miguel’s first year here. He’s a political activist in Barcelona, where he and his friends promote alternatives to capitalism, and set up squats and social centers in foreclosed, abandoned buildings. “We’re all very poor in Spain. One of my friends was telling me she’d done trimming before in California, so we thought we’d try it. We hitchhiked from San Francisco, and a nice woman picked us up around Ukiah and took us to Garberville, saying it was a good place to find work.”
Yet, he says it was much harder to find work than he and his girlfriend expected, and before they did they had some rather horrible nights camping out around Garberville.
“One night we were camping under a bridge with some other people from Spain, and some others came along who were much more about doing drugs and having a party. They were drinking and screaming all night long, and we did not feel safe at all.” After about two weeks of networking they landed a trim job that included food and a comfortable van to sleep in.
Several Garberville-area locals say that international trimmers have trickled in the area for over a decade, but their numbers started to be really noticeable around 2012, and have grown each year since. Nevertheless, a large number of trimmigrants come from every corner of this country.
Tips for Getting in the Zone
Brianna (averages 3 lbs per 12 hour day)
“In my trim room, we like the silence. I like to have a clear mind. Trimming is like meditation, similar to painting or writing. I move through a lot of things in my mind. It’s like the time in winter when you can nourish your soil. Sometimes we’ll set up a topic for the day and we’ll all tell stories about that, like your first love, or refrigerators.”
Kelly (author of The Clippers Handbook)
“The best people I’m seeing this year all plug into their little headsets and listen to books on tape and we don’t even hear from them all day. They’re absolute machines, but there’s a discipline there you have to develop. This is a limited time thing, plug yourself into whatever the heck you need to listen to, but talking is not something that anybody does that’s serious. Its too distracting and you don’t get into a flow that way.”
The Herbalist Trimmigrant
Brianna runs a bustling herbal remedy business in Upstate New York, and her husband has more work than he can do there as a permaculture designer. But it’s still worth it for them to put everything on hold for three months each fall to earn a lot of tax-free trim cash. They’ve just finished for the year and they’re going back with over $30,000, which they plan to invest in building a Cobb house.
They worked at the same farm Brianna started at in 2007 when she was a 21-year-old traveler just beginning her path as an herbalist. Back then the money from trimming empowered her to spend the rest of the year traveling and studying plants
“When I first started I was young and I didn’t value the work as much as I do now. I would take a lot of breaks and I was more into the social dynamics of the trim room. Now that I have a family I just know the value of working, and I just work really hard.”
Brianna says the other trimmers are also much more serious about work than in years past. “When I began nine years ago, I would see a lot of drinking and a lot of pot smoking around the trim scene. Over the years, with the changes in the world economy, I’m working more with foreigners who are really disciplined because they come from a place where they can’t even find waitress work. It’s less about partying. I don’t see the overconsumption of pot anymore because when they smoke it slows them down, they stop to admire things more.”
The Trimmigrant’s Teacher
Kelly Bond has been trimming for 32 years and I’m using her real name because she’s literally written the book on it, titled The Clipper’s Handbook: Harvesting the Emerald Triangle. Back in the ‘80’s no one called it trimming, she says, “we were all called clippers.”
The book blends technical aspects of drying and trimming with snapshots of the culture. “The psychology of this place is really interesting here,” Kelly explains. “This book is 30 years of my observations and experiences. If you want to learn how to clip, let me tell you two things: how we are here, and how to do the job well.”
Kelly says she’s always been a keen observer of the unique social dynamics of the trim scene. “Clipping rooms look like microcosms of people everywhere. Everything happens in a clipping room – you have to develop patience, you have to develop your skill set, you have to have a good method, you have to be able to be easygoing, put up with other personality traits, try not to be irritating.”
She describes her first clipping job 32 years ago, when CAMP raided the farm on her third day. “On a Monday, under the fog, at dawn, we had vans heading up the road headed to the ranch where I was working. So I got the experience of being thrown on a dirt bike, dropped off in the middle of the woods, thrown a walkie-talkie, told to stay put. Watching helicopters, my little 21-year-old heart was so overwhelmed thinking, oh my God, that’s our government and they’re trying to get us! It was completely frightening. I was so shocked I couldn’t even speak for most of the day. Seeing this whole movie go on, watching the choppers carrying weed away, heading back to the building where the Feds were standing earlier in the day and sleeping there that night, and the cast of characters I met that day, its absolutely why I’m still here. For me, it was the adventure I wanted to have and I’ve been here ever since.”
Raising the Respect – The Trimmer’s Ball
While the payoff can be great, plenty of trimmigrants endure uncertainty, subpar living conditions, and some very eccentric bosses who moved to the hills to escape the rules of civil society.
Lisa is a teacher from Brazil. She’s been a trimmigrant for seven years, but this year she’s feeling disheartened. “There’s a lot of social injustice in the trim world. The vibe you often get from the growers is ‘we’re here all year, working our butts off growing these plants, and investing so much. Then you come in for one to three months and make your tiny fortune, and you don’t have to clean up or deal with anything.’ That’s the idea they have about it, but what they’re not seeing is that we are a part of the process. We are as needed for the whole thing to thrive, its a living ecosystem. They’ll come into the room and say, ‘Some people are paying $150/lb now you should feel privileged that you’re making $200, or getting food’. That’s not a real human way to talk to people. I think they’re power tripping because in the real world there are boundaries and ways you can treat the people who work for you. That is lacking here. That part is the hardest part of it for me, and its why this is my last year.”
While many events have cropped up in recent years to celebrate and honor growers, this year there’s a new celebration dedicated to raising the level of respect for the seasonal farm workers needed to complete the harvest. The first annual Trimmer’s Ball and Cannabis Costume Contest takes place on Friday, November 20th at the Mateel Community Center. Opening the show will be the conscious dance rock band Clan Dyken followed by electronic dance music by DJ Marjo Lak and Copperton3 accompanied by psychedelic visuals from Marmalade Sky. It’s also a benefit for cannabis advocate Bear Dyken of the band Clan Dyken who, after 35 years of performing benefit concerts, had his homestead burn down in this year’s Butte Fire. The event needs volunteers. For more information call (707) 923-3368 or visit mateel.org. And next time you enjoy a gorgeous bud, remember to give thanks not just to the grower, but also to the trimmer.