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LIFE IN A POT GROWING COUNTY



"Growing pot is like every other business. The poor chumps get worked and exploited by those who have the resources and funds. Then again, most of them were chumps at the start and earned their way up the ladder the hard way so now they are collecting the benefits of being a bigger fish. Like it. Don't like it. It doesn't matter. Those with the money set the rules, and not many growers have the money."

By Mr. Greg

COPYRIGHT © 2002, 3 A.M. MAGAZINE. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED


The Environment

Humboldt County, California, is known for two things: the Redwood Forest and marijuana. Just as Redwoods dwarf almost every other species of tree in both size and beauty, so does Humboldt's herb make virtually every other strain grown in North America seem like second-rate Mexican schwag weed. Most especially that BC bud that the Canadians are reportedly dumping over the border.

The county's population of approximately 125,000 folks could fit in a small city. Or a dozen densely populated blocks in LA or NYC. Arcata and Eureka are the two largest cities in the county and their combined population is circa 40,000 people. That leaves a lot of people in tiny towns. Even more up in the hills.

Thousands of people in Humboldt live in the hills. Literally. Very steep hills; many so steep that they are completely useless for any sort of construction or legitimate form of agriculture. For growing herb, though, such terrain is ideal. First, it's hard to access. Usually there is only one way in and one way out -- by four wheel drive. This makes it very easy for the residents to note unwelcome visitors as well as the occasional guest. If, for some reason, you decide to randomly explore back roads between August and October -- harvest season -- you take your life in your hands.

People shoot at cars they don't know. At people they don't know. Deep graves in the backwoods nobody's gonna find. And it does happen, unfortunately, because people are stupid. The greatest risk posed to growers is the theft of their crop by other growers or groups of armed local thugs, both in and out of uniform.

Second, cops don't like climbing hills. Policing the county and all its people is impossible given the population's dispersion over such massive square mileage quilted and cut up by Indian reservations, state and federal forest lands, and thousands of miles of almost-parallel ruts that are called roads. In the city of Arcata there are roughly four officers on duty for a population of 12,000 people. And it's the second largest city in the county. Aside from the burgs which can afford their own police department there are only the County Sheriffs and CHP (as in Ponch and Jon from "CHiPs," remember?). That doesn't mean squat if you run off the road near Ferndale or are assaulted outside of Garberville. Nope. The only person covering your buns, making sure you are safe, in Humboldt County is yourself.

So when the growers live 40 miles away from Highway 101 and Interstate 5, at least 20 miles from the nearest gas station or pay phone, it's easy to understand why they have guns. Note the plural. It is unlikely they'll even see a police officer for weeks, possibly months. The only exception to this is during harvest season when CAMP (the federally funded Campaign Against Marijuana Planting) is in progress. Small planes and helicopters literally buzz the entire county with low-level flyovers looking for the crop. When located choppers with armed Feds arrive, whack it down, seize it and anything else they can find, and then pull out quickly. Big busts, of course, are prime photo ops for the press. Of course serving federal prison time and having your property forfeited is no fun either. While CAMP has been scaled back over the years, I understand it to be a great source of angst and worry for many in the pot community. CAMP, however, only lasts a few months. On the other hand a grower may have to deal with a meth head neighbor on a daily basis fighting over water rights and who needs to repair the one lane road on their property. All this while keeping the authorities uninvolved because everyone is doing something illegal. Neighbors and raiders are the greatest human risks the growers have.

Third, who would want to climb those hills except the grower? Come on, it's back-breaking work hauling water up thirty to sixty degree hills, sometimes a mile each way, in 100 degree heat through the underbrush. Try one day at it. Then three months. Might make you buff, though.

Before 23,000 useless lazy potheads from the Midwest and East Coast decide to move out here for the easy life of growing weed, think again. This is the poorest county in the state of California. About 40% of the population here is qualified for government supported health care. And they need it. Especially the pot growers. An inordinate number of them have bad teeth and need thousands of dollars of dental work. Not to mention unhealthy diets and countless other health problems. The six months it takes to get an appointment at the Open Door Health Clinic empowers your cavity to evolve into a root canal oozing green pus. Then they'll see you, maybe, after a 3 hour wait because you are in extreme pain. For real. Running up and down hills four to six hours a day is a breeze, right? No problem with that aching tooth, jaw, and an acrid pus taste in your mouth, right? After all you're growing pot and what could be better than that?

The job market is about as sick as the health care situation. Took me seven weeks to find work and I have ten solid years of experience and excellent qualifications. Plus I can pass the piss test. Most folks can't and it is necessary for most livable-wage jobs. Truth is there is no job market. Aside from the folks desperate enough to work 20 hours a week at a minimum wage job, many people are unemployed. Several of my friends have been actively seeking work for over two years. No luck. Maybe they're lazy, you say. Or unqualified. Probably it's because they're Indians and no one seems to want to hire them.

The net result is perfectly obvious. The majority of residents have few, if any, visible or viable economic assets.



The Crop

People grow dope for money. At least they plan to earn lots of money from growing herb. But reality sucks -- and so does the luck of many growers. Sixty to seventy percent of "grower chat" focuses on money problems. With an ounce of pot is going for nearly the same rate as gold how can that be?

Here's how: it's an agricultural product. Pot farmers suffer the same problems that all family farmers do: costly start-up, unexpected equipment failures, dependence upon the weather (unless it's hydroponic or strictly indoor), plant-specific diseases, bugs, and, of course, government regulation. If you have ever worked on a small farm, a legitimate one raising wheat or strawberries, you know it is not glamorous. Neither is growing weed. Unlike the voluminous regulations that tell the legal farmers how much fertilizer or pesticides they can use, the only regs governing pot farmers are state and federal criminal codes.

The importance of farmers, however, can be felt immediately in almost any rural community. Go to America's bread basket and see how local towns are handling the loss of family farms. Fewer people have money left to spend. Their property is seized to pay off mortgages, second mortgages, and vehicles they had to purchase in order to keep working the land so they can make their bank and tax payments. Not a lot of happy people there. Even in the good times farmers usually earn a tiny profit, unless they are the mega-plantations run by corporations -- but let's not go there. In small towns farmers are often the breath of life.

The same is true throughout Humboldt County. Choose virtually any town in the southern part of the county. Maybe a thousand people live in the general area. Certainly there are not a thousand jobs -- it's a stereotypical burg with a couple of bars and gas station, maybe a dozen or two small stores, post office, cop shop, and not much else. Yet there are a lot of unemployed people or individuals working under the broad description of "forestry." Yes, indeed, forestry is an important part of the local lumber industry. However, how exactly does a tree planter afford to pay for a 2002 Dodge Ram with a booming digital sound system, Cummins engine, and leather interior with cash? He doesn't. Nobody planting trees makes that type of cash. Nobody.

Of course not all the growers are that stupid in committing acts of conspicuous consumption. If you can't explain the money, don't flash it. Many old timers understand this practical rule of thumb. However, to return to our theme: how do a thousand people, or several thousand when you take in all the rural area surrounding your typical town, manage to support themselves, pay for their property, buy groceries, etc., when there is maybe one job for roughly every 30 people? They grow dope.

Yet for all the illegal dosh in the county you can barely tell it's there. Roads are poor. No hospitals are in the area. Cops are rarer then federal undercover agents. If the money was legitimate, and taxable, southern Humboldt would probably have some of the best infrastructures and social services available on the West Coast. But it doesn't. So the roads suck and there are virtually no doctors.

Before anyone thinks they can simply drive into any little burg and pick up ten pounds of dope, start their own grow operation, or bust a mad raid on the locals think again. They don't know you, they probably won't like you, and most of them definitely have firearms. Again, note the plural. Would you drive up into the back-hills of Idaho or West Virginia just for kicks? Same rules. Do not mess with the locals because you will lose.

Now back to the farmers and their costs and profits. Here are some basic, rough numbers:

Rent: $5 - 8 thousand/ year -- buying property costs even more.

Food, beer, miscellaneous drugs, clothes, etc.: $5 - 8 thousand a year. More if you're buying organic food or hemp clothing which many growers, especially the young ones, tend to do.

Vehicle: $5 - 10 thousand a year, average the outright purchase of an old vehicle every year or two or acquiring a new vehicle with cost spread out over 3 - 5 years. We're talking four by fours, here. Volvos and Yugos just don't cut it on the back ruts. Yes, ruts.

Now that's just fifteen to twenty-six thousand a year in living costs. Sure, you can cut corners, right? And when there's tens of thousands of dollars, cash, in your hands after a harvest you're not gonna blow eight bucks on a sixer of Dead Guy Ale instead of the two bucks for a forty of Olde English 800, right? Sure. So it goes 99.99% of the time. People who have money spend money. Especially when they haven't had any for eight or nine months.

The cost of an operation: $20 thousand in order to set up a decent 10 light grow operation including generators, bulbs, soil, starts, etc. Once this is going the next cycle will cost about five thousand cash to maintain since you already have the lights, the gear, the plants to make clones from, etc. If the crop goes perfectly, and there are no evictions, molds, early freezes, loss of power, unexpected emergencies with no friend to come water the plants for three days, etc., then the project will probably earn $70,000. This is dependent upon time of year, quality of strain, desperation of the buyer and seller, etc.

Okay, math time. Say costs are twenty grand for living and twenty grand for setting up, that makes forty K in order to get rolling. If everything goes perfectly, and it won't, there's a net of thirty K. Less five to keep the next cycle going. So a net of $25K. Sounds good, right? That's plenty of money to live off of, right?

Where's the $40K right now, though? It's not here. It's not there. It's not anywhere that almost any beginning grower is going to find it. Unless they're rich kids, yuppies rediscovering their hippie roots by moving here to grow and "live off the land, brother," or somehow independently wealthy they don't have the money.

One big thing about money: it takes money to make money. Obvious, I know. However, most of these theoretical people who have money are not going to grow. They don't need to. Instead, they'll front money and let somebody else do the dirty work. After all, this is Humboldt County and they can get weed whenever they want. They don't have to grow it. Most don't want to take the risk.

So the wannabe-growers usually have no dough. If they have good, trustworthy contacts and are known to be honorable they may be fronted some gear, some farming supplies like starts, or, optimally, money. People usually have to live in the county for years before anybody will trust them at all. Much less front them. Why? Because it is pretty much a given that if an operation is busted then the investor loses their principal and the farmer loses their crop. Cops and herb are like locusts and wheat. It doesn't take a genius to plot: I'll raid my own patch and then claim I don't owe Joe Bob any money 'cause it was the cops. People are rumored to get deaded over issues like that.

Others, particularly the youngsters who have not earned the trust of their better connected, more experienced elders, work it out in sweat. Plant and grow on another person's property. Assist with the watering and guarding of someone else's patch. Help trim at harvest. All of these jobs pay poorly. Usually growing on another person's land costs at least half of the harvest, more if the land-owner fronted cash to help support the grower. That means buying their food, gas, toilet paper, etc., while the grower tends to the crop. Helping water, tend, or guard a crop pays much, much worse. Usually people do that simply to apprentice, to get into the industry, to learn tricks of the trade. The last option, trimming, is work that may only last a few hours or days, but it helps develop some trust in the community. Or lack thereof.

Now back to the chumps who had to borrow mad cash in order to get their grow-op started. Let's pretend everything went perfectly. Happy as a clam. First they have to pay back the principal to the grantor. Add 100% interest. Some will take the interest payment in pot. Restated, a ten thousand dollar loan costs twenty grand. These are rumored to be the standard operation rates; some are better, some get much worse. Interest can get up to two or three hundred percent in some of the more obscene cases.

Returning to the original example of $20K gets you $70K: deduct $20K in payments on the $10K loan, that puts the net at $50K. Then deduct all the miscellaneous vehicular, food, and living costs. Yes, a few grand was earned! Ooops! Trick question. Remember, $20K was needed to start the operation and the grower had next to no resources. Assuming that a person would even front that much cash to a newbie, the payment on said loan would be $40K from the seventy. If everything went perfectly there's a cool thirty grand. Which it won't. It rarely ever does. Under real conditions the take is probably closer to a net profit of $15 to $20 grand. After how many months, how much paranoia, how much being isolated in the middle of the woods or being unable to travel anywhere? Of course the next grow won't have nearly as many start-up costs. Unless Mr. Murphy punishes you with his law and your generator breaks down, infects your plants with mites, or inflicts you with a burglary.

Growing pot is like every other business. The poor chumps get worked and exploited by those who have the resources and funds. Then again, most of them were chumps at the start and earned their way up the ladder the hard way so now they are collecting the benefits of being a bigger fish. Like it. Don't like it. It doesn't matter. Those with the money set the rules, and not many growers have the money.

(Please note these calculations do not even take into consideration the pot-smoking habits of most growers. The serious ones, and the amateurs, often go through an ounce a week. With friends and by themselves. That's more than two pounds of weed puffed a year. In local terms, that's seven to ten grand in potential profit gone up in smoke. Think about it.)



Rural Banking

In spite of the difficulties facing many growers, some are successful. Some are very successful. So successful they have more money than they know what to do with. How much money? Try several plastic fifty gallon drum containers filled with straps of twenties, fifties, and hundreds all packaged in plastic to keep it clean and from spilling all over the place. Also makes it easier to inventory.

Why don't they take it to the bank? Duh. That's called money laundering, kids, and nobody with half a brain is going to use a bank to wash their drug money. Remember, financial institutions and currency brokers have been obligated to help fight the war on drugs for several decades. Hence anyone with half a brain won't bank their money.

Probably the only exception to this rule is for the mega-growers. Those folks who make five, ten, twenty million dollars a year on huge indoor and outdoor operations. No doubt they already have their launderers set up, accounts at various banks based on assorted islands in the Caribbean, and numerous front companies to funnel their profits. But just like legal businesses, there are ten or twenty thousand small fry for every large fish. These guys can use banks relatively safely because they often have professionals set up and structure their banking. If you think a successful grower is somehow going to grasp the intricacies of international finance, dodge reporting limits, create front corporations, etc., you vastly overestimate their intelligence and/or available time. Okay, okay, there may be one or two of them, but that's it. Frankly, they have so much money they can easily afford to pay someone else to take care of their cash.

Those growers who make a couple hundred thousand a year for several years end up holding a lot of green bills. You can't just put it under your floorboards or in your mattress. That's stupid. Amazingly, however, many people are rumored to still do just that. Those with brains never allow anyone, ANYONE, but a key family member or blood brother to know the location of their cash stash.

One solid rule it is that people talk. That's how this article came to be. Trust a secret with a friend and it might slip to a lover after sex or out-of-town trusted friend over a drink. Or they might not be so trusted. Money goes bye-bye and/ or someone ends up six feet under covered in lye. Loose lips sink ships. The old-timers keep their mouths shut tight.

An excellent example of how to keep money safe is given by the now-deceased Eduardo. No, he died in a car accident. He wasn't killed for his money. Eduardo was a very successful grower, locally born and raised. Apparently he was at it for most of his adult life. Rumors say that he had several of those plastic fifty gallon drums filled with cash. Plastic ones to keep the metal detectors from locating them. Only two people ever knew their location. One was his father who helped him bury them on his forty acre plus piece of land. The other was his long-term growing partner. People have heard of the stashes, of course, but no one else knows exactly where they are. What's a greedy thief going to do, dig up all forty acres? Try and rob his father? Not if you knew him.

Upon Eduardo's death his father was obviously messed up. A well-armed and hard nosed man with dogs, anyone trying to get the money before would have had a serious challenge before the death -- even if they had known where it was. After the death, well, dad apparently won't let anyone even come close to the money. He's guarding and saving it for his son. As for the business partner, it's a good thing his share of the money was buried elsewhere because nobody is getting to it.



End Blend

Let's review growing in Humboldt County: few cops, less work, even worse health care, a wretched financial state, armed thieves, and possibly a federal seizure. In spite of all these factors why do so many people grow pot here? Cause it's one of the most beautiful places on earth and farming herb is the ONLY way many can manage to support themselves and their families while remaining in the area. The soil rocks, too. Once you live here you never want to leave. But don't move here, please. The last thing we need are more baby hippie rats spanging (spare changing for the uninitiated) people who have enough trouble supporting themselves.

The net effect of this economic crunch is that Humboldt is essentially a county in economic revolt against the U.S. Government. It is the only way many people here can earn a living. Sure there's that one percent making millions, but that's one percent. The rest are principally poor and lower middle class trying to get by. Only their jobs are illegal.

Tens of millions of their illegal dollars go to the grocery stores, auto dealerships, and the electric company to name a few. It is eerie to live in a place where you know there is a real rebellion under way, where almost every dollar is "dirty." A pot rebellion born of necessity.







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