Into the Marijuana Future: A Day On a Mendocino Pot Farm

“You have to catch the plant at the right moment. With the size of our gardens and the number of plants, we have to harvest a certain number everyday or we’ll fall behind and be overwhelmed.”

– Mendocino County marijuana grower

“I’ve been lucky,” the tall, thin, energetic pot farmer tells me on a hot day in September. “I grew my first crop at 17 and now 30 years later I’m still growing it. At 22, the DEA raided my garden in San Francisco. I was part of the underground movement that provided cannabis to HIV and cancer patients.” He pauses for a moment and adds, whimsically, “I call myself a THC-hemp farmer.”

We were standing in one of his marijuana gardens and we were admiring the plants, some of them ready to be harvested and others not yet mature. “You have to catch the plant at the right moment,” he explains. “With the size of our gardens and the number of plants, we have to harvest a certain number everyday or we’ll fall behind and be overwhelmed.” I didn’t count the number of plants, but there were a lot of them; far more than I wanted to count.

That morning, I had driven, with a grower, from downtown Santa Rosa to the northeast corner of Mendocino County to visit the “lucky” forty-seven-year-old farmer I call “M.” There’s no point in outing him or drawing a map of his sun-bathed property with directions on how to get there on 101. He doesn’t need the exposure, especially not at this time of year with the crop aching to be harvested.

This was not my first visit to Mendocino or to M’s neck of the woods, not by a long shot. For several years, I lived outside Willits on a mountain where everyone (75 people by my reckoning) grew cannabis, whether they were battle-scared Vietnam Vets, pious churchgoers, color purple lesbians, African-Americans from East Oakland, Yuppies from San Francisco or real back-to-the-land hippies. I also spent time in Mendocino as a marijuana journalist for High Times magazine, the Anderson Valley Advertiser and as the author of a Hunter S. Thompson-style-gonzo book I wrote called Marijuanaland: Dispatches from an American War. Marijuana is sort of legal in California now, but the war isn’t over.

In 2010, I spent part of a summer with two pot farmers—a husband and wife—in the same northeast corner of Mendocino County where M is growing weed. The husband and wife team were busted that fall, their crop confiscated. The guy called me from the jail in Ukiah to say hello and goodbye. That was the last time I heard from him or his wife.

What my experiences in Mendocino have taught me is that no two growers are identical, and that for every trend or pattern in the pot world, there is usually a counter trend or pattern. Everything goes along slowly and rarely changes and then suddenly everything changes all at once. My experiences made me peeved recently when I read an article in The New Yorker about Humboldt and about “the last remnants of the counterculture,” as the author called it.

Emily Witt, who is based in Brooklyn, thousands of miles from Humboldt, explains in her article that everyone in Humboldt calls cannabis “the plant,” and that the cannabis crop is “the original sin of Humboldt’s Eden.” She also says that the hippie community went through a “Green Rush” and came out “corporate.” I could write a whole book in response to Witt’s assertions, but back to the grower I call “M” and his grower buddy “S,” who drove me to that remote corner of Mendocino.

The really big thing that had happened with, and to, M, and that still had him thinking, was an official visit from a state inspector of cannabis operations. That news told me, right from the start, that M was aiming to follow rules and regulations and adhere to the law. “He was here to inspect not to enforce,” M explains to S, who was unsure of the role of the inspector. “He told me the inspection he was doing would probably be the easiest I would have.” M adds that the state inspector “hassled” him because he wasn’t doing “Metric,” the State of California’s “Track-and-Trace System.”

Under that program, each and every plant is assigned a number that follows it from the ground, where it grows, to a warehouse, a distributor, a manufacturing center and a dispensary. It’s no wonder that industry analysts point out that cannabis is the most highly regulated crop ever in the history of California. Someone must think it’s dangerous and that it has to be tracked and traced like a common criminal. Perhaps it does. Some growers are not as scrupulous as M, and aren’t as conscious as he is about human health and the health of the land.

“We’re supposed to weigh every plant when it’s wet and then when it’s dry and then weight the trim and the waste and log all the numbers into a computer,” M says. “Not surprisingly, the state doesn’t have the resources to administer and enforce the track-and-trace system, and a lot of growers don’t have computers and aren’t on line.” He adds, a tad mournfully: “Entering data into a computer is one of the last things I want to do in my life.”

S, the grower from Sonoma County, listens to M describe his mundane chores, throws up his hands in frustration and says, “You’ll have to track every time you take a shit.” M and S are friends and pals, united by a love of the marijuana plant, a strong dislike of circling helicopters, but they are taking very different roads to get to the marketplace.

While M is opting to be in the system, S is opting to stay outside it. He has lived as an outlaw since he was a teenager and he will probably die an outlaw. The two parallel tracks that M and S are following are emblematic of the larger paths in the whole cannabis industry: go legit; or stay on the black-market. Of course, there’s also the option of doing some of both and hedging bets.

M has followed the law and has been “compliant” from day one, which means he has not diverted water from a stream, but rather has relied on groundwater from his wells and hasn’t used chemical herbicides and pesticides. He also has setbacks: space between the edge of his property and the start of the garden. “I’ve been creating my own infrastructure for decades,” M says. “I have great drying facilities.”

He adds, “A lot of growers drop the ball at the end of the season, which is understandable because it’s such a long road to get the crop in and then to dry, cure and store it. Those are some of my biggest concerns right now, especially drying.”

M has one foot in the past and another in the future. In addition to the computerization of his operation, he has created an area on the farm for research and development. He has also developed his own marijuana stains—about two dozen, including one called “Dennis Peron,” and another from seeds brought back from Vietnam—which are tested for THC and CBD.

“In Mendocino back in the day, the goal was to have 25 humongous plants that yielded ten pounds,” M says. “The trend now is to have smaller plants, but more of them, packed closely together and with less space between them.”

I call that trend “the industrialization of cannabis cultivation.” If it’s not already here, it’s coming soon to a pot farm near you or very far away.

“I have the biggest garden in this area,” M says. In fact, he has plants that are about 14-feet tall and about 14-feet in diameter and plants that are about half that size, but packed closely together and touching one another. He keeps each plant separate, so he can track-and-trace. M says that the state inspector walked around his garden with a tape recorder, measured nearly everything worth measuring and urged him “to consolidate.” In other words: industrialize.

M faces several challenges. One comes from the distributors who want uniformity of product and lots of it, and who often won’t pay him until after they have sold the cannabis, not when they receive the crop. “Growers are the credit cards for the distributors,” M says. A distributor recently “stiffed” him. His lawyer is on the case, hoping to collect the money that M is owed. The lawyer is also urging M to have signed contracts with distributors. No more deals sealed with a handshake.

Another challenge is from the big industrial operations—“the factories in the field”—that are mass-producing product and who often don’t give a shit about the craft. M wants to emphasize quality, to have limited releases and process small batches at a time.

Meanwhile, the black market is going like gangbusters.

“Thousand of pounds not in the track-and-trace system are transported out of state and go all around the country,” M says. “That’s the national market, which is a whole other world from the California market. “ His pal S operates on the national black market level and does quite nicely.

Times have changed and are still changing, but some things have remained the same. Back in the day, as best I can remember, there were hip capitalists, along with idealistic hippies. In the 1970s, I interviewed the head of a cannabis corporation who had investors and employees, paid wages and grew a large commercial crop in Mendocino. If cannabis capitalism is alive and well, so is the counterculture with its music, alternative lifestyles and sense of community.

Marijuana never was the devil weed, unless you believed the drug warriors. Pot never destroyed Eden in Mendocino, Humboldt and all across the Emerald Triangle. Ranchers overgrazed, loggers cut down the forests and vigilantes hunted and exterminated most or at least many of the Indians.

I didn’t get stoned with M and S. We didn’t smoke any weed, but we walked around the garden smelling the flowers of the ripest cannabis plants. I suppose we got high in a way, out there under the sun in what had been a productive orchard and where the land was still producing a “cash crop.” That’s what Ray Raphael called it in his groundbreaking book, Cash Crop, published in 1985 and that explored the economics of marijuana in northern California. Thirty-four years later, it’s a bigger cash crop than ever before.

S and I said goodbye to M. I walked to the gate and opened it. S drove to the edge of the road and stopped. I closed the gate and climbed aboard S’s car. M waved goodbye, turned and walked toward his garden.

S and I made our way back to the civilization of malls, freeways, housing tracts and dispensaries where pot lovers and medical marijuana patients buy weed from the remotest corners of Mendocino County and from big, corporate-owned greenhouses in places like Salinas. John Steinbeck would get it, and so would Carey McWilliams, the author of Factories in the Field, which is as timely now as when it was first published eighty years ago.

Jonah Raskin is the author of Beat Blues, San Francisco, 1955.