Veteran Pot Growers See Their Way of Life Ending

Sep 30, 2012

In the moun­tains of Men­do­cino County, a middle-aged cou­ple stroll into the cool morn­ing air to plant the year’s crop. Andrew grabs a shovel and begins to dig up rich black gar­den beds while Anna waters the seedlings, begin­ning a hal­lowed annual rit­ual here in marijuana’s Emer­ald Tri­an­gle. In the past, plant­ing day was a time of great expec­ta­tions, maybe for a vaca­tion in Hawaii or Mex­ico dur­ing the rainy months or a new motor home to make deliv­er­ies around the coun­try. But this year, Andrew and Anna are hop­ing only that their 50 or so mar­i­juana plants will cover the bills. Since the mid-1990s, the price of outdoor-grown mar­i­juana has plum­meted from more than $5,000 a pound to less than $2,000, and even as low as $800. Bat­tered by com­pe­ti­tion from indoor cul­ti­va­tors around the state and industrial-size oper­a­tions that have invaded the North Coast coun­ties, many of the small-time pot farm­ers who cre­ated the Emer­ald Tri­an­gle fear that their way of life of the last 40 years is com­ing to an end. Their once-quiet com­mu­ni­ties, with their back-to-nature ethos, are being over­run by out­siders carv­ing mas­sive farms out of the for­est. Rob­beries are com­mon­place now, and the moun­tains rever­ber­ate with the sounds of chain saws and heavy equip­ment. “Every night we hear heli­copters now,” Anna said. “It’s peo­ple mov­ing big green­houses and gen­er­a­tors into the moun­tains.” Andrew, 56, and Anna, 52, who agreed to be inter­viewed only if they would be iden­ti­fied by their mid­dle names, live in a ram­bling house down a trail through tanoaks and Dou­glas firs. Their elec­tric­ity comes from a wind­mill and solar pan­els, their water from a spring. They cook on a wood stove and use an out­house with a com­post­ing toi­let to con­serve water for their crop. Though they are not com­plete back-to-the-landers — they have a nice car, satel­lite TV and Inter­net access — they keep their gar­dens rel­a­tively small, tucked in the trees through­out their prop­erty. Among their plants, they post their own med­ical mar­i­juana cards so that if they’re raided, it looks as though they’re grow­ing under the aegis of state law. But because dis­pen­saries gen­er­ally pre­fer the more potent weed grown indoors, they still sell mostly to the black mar­ket, where mom-and-pop grow­ers now strug­gle to com­pete. “These big com­mer­cial grow­ers have really ruined our busi­ness,” Anna said. Until recently, life in the hills of Men­do­cino and Hum­boldt coun­ties had changed lit­tle in the decades since hip­pies from the Bay Area began home­steading here. The pio­neers ini­tially grew mar­i­juana for them­selves and to make a lit­tle money. Then in the 1980s, cul­ti­va­tion of high-grade seed­less mar­i­juana opened the pos­si­bil­ity for big money as it brought a higher pre­mium. Many of the farm­ers cashed in. But many remained small and dis­creet to avoid attract­ing the atten­tion of state and fed­eral agents. They raised their fam­i­lies where they cul­ti­vated. They drove beat-up Sub­arus and small Toy­ota pick­ups, pumped their water from wells and chopped their own fire­wood. The moun­tain ham­lets oper­ated like break­away states. Mar­i­juana farm­ers paid for com­mu­nity cen­ters, fire depart­ments, road main­te­nance and ele­men­tary schools. Even today, small cannabis-funded vol­un­teer fire sta­tions and pri­mary schools are scat­tered through­out the ranges. And the local radio sta­tion, KMUD, announces the sheriff’s deputies’ move­ments as part of its pub­lic ser­vice man­date. But the lib­er­al­iza­tion of mar­i­juana laws in the last decade upended the sta­tus quo. From Oak­land to the Inland Empire, peo­ple began cul­ti­vat­ing indoors on an unprece­dented scale at the same time that grow­ers from around the world flooded the North Coast because of its remote­ness and deep-rooted coun­ter­cul­ture. Now, with the mar­ket glut­ted, peo­ple are sim­ply plant­ing ever-larger crops to make up for the drop in price. Long­time res­i­dents com­plain that the new­com­ers cut down trees, grade hill­sides, divert creeks to irri­gate multi-thousand-plant crops, use heavy pes­ti­cides and rat poi­sons, and run giant, smog-belching diesel gen­er­a­tors to illu­mi­nate indoor grows. They blaze around in Dodge mon­ster trucks and Cadil­lac Escalades and don’t con­tribute to upkeep of the roads or schools. “They just don’t care,” said Kym Kemp, a teacher and blog­ger in the moun­tains of Sohum, as locals call south­ern Hum­boldt County. “They’re not think­ing, ‘I want my kids to grow up here.’ “Now there are green­houses the size of a foot­ball field that weren’t even there last year,” she added. Kemp said she feels her region is being col­o­nized and wor­ries about the col­or­ful, off-the-grid peo­ple that small cannabis patches long sup­ported. “So many peo­ple who live here are just dif­fer­ent,” she said. “They don’t fit in reg­u­lar soci­ety. They couldn’t work 9-to-5 jobs. But they’ve got­ten used to rais­ing their kids on middle-class incomes. What are they going to do?” Tom Evans, 61, a small-time grower in north­ern Men­do­cino, said the sense of peace and self-reliance he moved here for 30 years ago is dis­ap­pear­ing so fast that he may leave for Mex­ico. “It used to be a con­test to see who could drive the old­est pickup truck,” said Evans, a for­mer Army heli­copter mechanic who sports a woolly gray beard and tie-dyed shirt. “There’s just been this huge influx of folks who have money on their mind, instead of love of the land. A lot more gun-toters. A lot more attack dogs.” Evans lives in a small rented home that gen­er­ously could be called a fixer-upper. He said he doesn’t have a bank account or credit card, and his Honda Pass­port has more than 300,000 miles. “It’s ‘make a liv­ing, not a killing,’” he said. His friend, a bear of man who goes by the name Mr. Fuzzy, noted that it’s not only out­siders caus­ing prob­lems. “You know the weird part, these are our kids too,” he said. It’s a recur­ring lament among long­time grow­ers. Some of their own chil­dren are going for the large-scale grows, big money and fancy cars. The larger irony is that the mar­i­juana pio­neers are being pushed to the mar­gins by the legal­iza­tion they long espoused. “Ulti­mately we worry about Win­ston or Marl­boro get­ting some land and doing their thing,” said Lawrence Ringo, a 55-year-old grower and seed breeder deep in the wilds of Sohum. “We see it time after time in Amer­ica — big cor­po­ra­tions come in and take over.” Ringo saw the 2010 mar­i­juana ini­tia­tive, Propo­si­tion 19, as a ploy by Bay Area activists to dom­i­nate the mar­ket with giant ware­house grows in Oak­land. He sus­pects plenty of peo­ple will still want high-quality, organ­i­cally grown cannabis but fears the big busi­ness inter­ests will dic­tate how mar­i­juana gets reg­u­lated. Ringo points out that Col­orado, the one state that fully reg­u­lates mar­i­juana, helped push most grow­ing indoors and place cul­ti­va­tion under the con­trol of large dis­pen­saries. “We’re afraid of los­ing what we’ve been doing for 40 years,” he said. As com­pe­ti­tion dri­ves prices down, even cham­ber of com­merce types acknowl­edge that the North Coast econ­omy is at risk. Pot kept things afloat as the log­ging and fish­ing indus­tries declined. Restau­rants, car deal­er­ships, banks, hotels and den­tal clin­ics all depend on mar­i­juana money. “There’s prob­a­bly not one busi­ness that doesn’t ben­e­fit,” said Julie Fulk­er­son, who founded a home fur­nish­ings store and comes from a promi­nent third-generation Hum­boldt fam­ily. Walk into the upscale Cecil’s New Orleans Bistro in small-town Gar­berville and you’ll find grow­ers in dirty T-shirts unpeel­ing rolls of $20 bills to pay for mar­ti­nis and $38 steaks. More soil sup­ply and hydro­pon­ics shops line stretches of High­way 101 than gas sta­tions, and trucks laden with bags of soil and fer­til­izer kick up dust as they make deliv­er­ies on the most iso­lated roads. Dur­ing har­vest, hard­ware stores put out huge bins of Fiskars prun­ing scis­sors, the pre­ferred tool for mar­i­juana trim­mers. Safe­way stocks so many turkey bags that an out­sider might won­der how such small locales could con­sume so many birds. The seal­able, smell-proof bags are used for stor­ing and trans­port­ing weed. “I wouldn’t sur­vive … if it wasn’t for grow­ing,” said Tom Ochner, 54, who runs a coun­try store and rental cab­ins out­side of Cov­elo — a busi­ness called the Black Butte River Ranch. “Own­ers real­ize this is what makes their busi­ness go.” Con­cerned about the eco­nom­ics of legal­iza­tion, Hum­boldt banker Jen­nifer Bud­wig stud­ied the amount of pot money enter­ing the local econ­omy. Using an extremely high esti­mate that law enforce­ment seized 25% of the total amount of pot grown in Hum­boldt, she found that the crop gen­er­ated at least $1 bil­lion a year — of which $415 mil­lion was spent in the county. She said the actual fig­ure could be sev­eral times higher. Legal­iza­tion “has the poten­tial to be dev­as­tat­ing,” she said. Some small grow­ers, like Anna and Andrew, still hold out hope that they can beat back the del­uge of indus­trial mar­i­juana. There’s a mar­ket, they say, for sun-grown weed among dis­cern­ing users who appre­ci­ate the nuances of regional vari­ety. A grower just down the road said he hoped to start pro­mot­ing “Men­do­cino ter­roir.” “How can sun-grown not be bet­ter med­i­cine?” Anna asked. “If you’re sick, you want some­thing that has chem­i­cals in it? You can’t grow indoor organ­i­cally. Not to men­tion the fos­sil fuels it burns up.” But even if bou­tique weed has some poten­tial, the cou­ple still sense that their life in the moun­tains is chang­ing for good. The next-door neigh­bor recently had a home-invasion rob­bery, and a young man down the road was shot in the face dur­ing a deal. Andrew goes back to plant­ing the new crop. He used to have the radio on all day — some­thing to engage his mind dur­ing the tedious work. He doesn’t any­more. He keeps it quiet, lis­ten­ing for intrud­ers. Source: Los Ange­les Times (CA) Author: Joe Mozingo, Los Ange­les Times Pub­lished: Sep­tem­ber 30, 2012 Copy­right: 2012 Los Ange­les Times Con­tact: letters@​latimes.​com Web­site: http://​www​.latimes​.com/

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