Josh Johnson had never seen pot trees before. They towered 14 or 15 feet in the air, their limbs blooming with marijuana flowers in the sunlight like rows of cornstalks. They weren't nearly as tall as the Douglas firs covering the Pacific Northwest mountains nearby, but these plants would produce more than 1,000 pounds of marijuana for local dispensaries.
Johnson had never worked on a farm before, either. There weren't any in the Stop Six neighborhood where he was raised in East Fort Worth. He'd spent the past five years as a stand-up comic in North Texas and found some success, scoring spots on two major comedy showcases, Fox's Laughs and Comedy Central's Adam Devine's House Party, and releasing his first comedy album, Tabitha. He became known as one of Dallas-Fort Worth's must-see comedians and was a finalist for Funniest Comic in Texas in 2011.
Then he discovered another comedian with the same name. The other Josh Johnson, a Chicagoan, was named one of Comedy Central's comics to watch in 2015. He performed on Kevin Hart's Hart of the City in October 2016 and later Jimmy Fallon's Tonight Show and Conan on TBS. He released his debut album, Josh Johnson: I Like You, with Comedy Central Records and created the website therealjoshjohnson.com.
For the Texan, seeing his counterpart's success was a blow.
"I had this mental block in my head," Johnson told the Observer in December. "When I went to the club, I wouldn't go up. I'd freak out and have an episode in the parking lot. I felt like I had fallen off a horse and hurt myself. I was [letting] the horse beat me."
Like generations of Texans before him facing hard times, Johnson and fellow North Texas comedian Michael Kruger packed up and headed to California and its promise of a better life. Kruger had just split up with his girlfriend and planned to find work as a pot trimmer in the Emerald Triangle of the Pacific Northwest. With more than 10,000 square miles producing an estimated $1 billion cash crop annually, it's considered the Napa Valley of the U.S. cannabis-producing regions. More than half of the marijuana consumed in the U.S. comes from the area, providing an economic boon that filled the void left behind by the ailing fishing and timber industries, Business Insider reported in October 2016.
A few of Kruger's friends had gone there to find work in previous seasons and earned good money for a few months of back-breaking manual labor. They were part of a transient population the locals call "trimmigrants." They swarm the Emerald Triangle during the harvest months like characters from John Steinbeck's Dust Bowl novel The Grapes of Wrath. Since marijuana is still illegal at the federal level, workers are paid cash, with no payroll deductions. It used to be a word-of-mouth kind of industry until social media turned it into a mecca for trimmigrants.
Shortly before they left for California, Kruger says, they caught the other Josh Johnson's comedy routine at a small pub in Dallas. The two Johnsons don't sound alike but have a similar joke about the whiteness of their name and the benefits that come with it on job applications.
"We don't look anything alike, but to the industry, we look enough alike," Johnson says. "People say, 'Well, you can change your name,' but that defeats the whole purpose. If he was just white or maybe even taller ... ."
An American tale
In the foothills of the Siskiyou and Cascade ranges, which span Northern California and southern Oregon, the pot farm where Johnson and Kruger found work was one of countless operations in the region. Tens of thousands of growers have appeared in the Pacific Northwest since California first decriminalized marijuana for medicinal use in the '90s. Most are small family farms of less than an acre. Others are larger outfits, though not nearly as big as the corporate farms dominating other crops — at least not yet.
The small family farms employ a large local workforce and supplement with trimmigrants like Johnson and Kruger during the peak harvest season, says Fred Krissman, a research associate at Humboldt State University's Institute for Interdisciplinary Marijuana Research. Operating in a legal grey area or outright illegally, the farms provided workers relatively high wages that Krissman says support local working-class families and migrant workers, but now that economic boost is threatened by legalization. Operating a legal cannabis farm means paying high taxes and bearing the cost of stricter regulation, and that spells less in wages for trimmigants.
Cannabis decriminalization is expected to generate $1 billion in new tax revenue for California, but pot farmers are not lining up to apply for permits and licenses. Hezekiah Allen, the executive director for the advocacy group Cal Growers, says the cost for them to do so runs from $50,000 to $150,000, partly to update operations to meet regulations.
It wouldn't be such a high price for them to pay, he says, if they were eligible for small-business loans from the state or federal government. Instead they're forced to rely on the predatory financial market filled with tech billionaires and venture capitalists seeking part ownership of the homestead.
But Allen doesn't see legal recreational marijuana as all bad news for growers. With regulation and transparency, prices will finally reflect the quality of the product, rewarding better growers. He compares growing marijuana to wine instead of corn.
Another hurdle for small farmers comes from conservative rural county governments. Allen says most of them deny permits because they never wanted marijuana there — coastal liberal cities sought reform. Allen recently met with several county officials to discuss how to move forward now that the state allows recreational marijuana. He says one of his organization's highest priorities is to get every county to start issuing permits.
In Humboldt County, Krissman says, only 2,000 of the 10,000 small family farms operating there have applied for permits and licenses. It's a number reflected in the cannabis revenue stream. In 2016, the illicit market generated $5.1 billion in revenue, compared with $1.8 billion from the legal market, according to the Arcview Group, an Oakland-based cannabis investment and research firm.
Krissman conducts field studies of growers and pot trimmers in the Northern California counties that make up the Emerald Triangle region — Humboldt, Mendocino and Trinity — and tells an all-too-familiar American tale about farmers struggling to earn a profit from their crops. Unlike small farms growing other crops, pot farmers are not eligible for subsidies from the U.S Department of Agriculture, nor do they have access to banks because marijuana is still illegal at the federal level.
In recent years, Krissman has noticed a dramatic decline in California prices, from $3,000 to $4,000 per pound to $1,000 per pound for growers, while retailers and dispensers still sell their grams, quarter-ounces and ounces for the same prices as four or five years ago. "There is a huge markup from what farmers are offered and what retailers make," he says. "They're raking up high profits."
He compares it to what happened in Oregon when recreational marijuana took effect two years ago, which resulted in dramatically lower wages and poorer conditions for workers. "By the time this all shakes up and becomes clear, small family farmers will all be bankrupt and pushed out of the business," he says. "Or they'll continue to produce for the black market."
'Sounded good on paper'
Everywhere Johnson and Kruger went in the tiny forest town of Garberville in Humboldt County, they saw trimmigrants with backpacks and dogs, lingering along the Main Street like homeless people. Some begged for food and money, and many held cardboard signs with words like "Hard worker. Honest. Responsible. Good Vibes" and "I want work."
"It's full of dreaded, barefooted, flip-flop-wearing Midwestern white kids who decided to work in the pot business because it sounded good on paper," Johnson says.
Many longtime homesteaders despised their presence and showed this displeasure with anti-trimmigrant bumpers stickers that read, "No Work Here, Keep Moving."
Johnson and Kruger quickly realized that landing a trim job wasn't as easy as showing up on the street corner with cardboard sign in hand. Many growers used Craigslist and specialized sites to find workers, and others simply relied on connections; the pair's arrival at the midpoint of the harvest season in late October 2016 didn't help, either.
The trim work also isn't easy. Small leaves surround the THC-laden buds that sell for premium prices. The trimmer's job is to snip off the small leaves to create the clean buds pot smokers cherish. Machines can do some of the work, but the most presentable bud is produced by hand trimming. "Presentation is one of the biggest ways to get your pot sold at the dispensary," Johnson says.
It takes weeks of tedious work to manicure crops into what Johnson calls "High Times photograph worthy." The work once paid trimmers $200 per pound, but now wages range from $100 to $150 per pound. Two pounds can be trimmed in a day if you're good, 3 or 4 if you're on meth.
Since farms are producing product for the black and gray markets, it's a dangerous work environment with robberies and law enforcement stings. Being a pot trimmer for an illegal operation could make a farmhand an accessory to a drug crime. Most of the grow sites are in remote locations without cellphone service, and it's a long walk back to civilization if a trimmer has dispute with the boss. It's an easy place to disappear. In 2015, Humboldt County had 352 people reported missing.
"I was just trying to find a way to get screwed over as little as possible," Johnson says.
Johnson and Kruger slept in their car at rest areas surrounded by redwood trees and spent their days traveling to forest towns in the Emerald Triangle in search of work. They didn't have any real leads to follow. Some trimmigrants went to bars to try to meet potential employers, and others volunteered at the many marijuana-funded nonprofits in the area. Everywhere Kruger and Johnson went, they were told that family farms didn't want outside help anymore. They also heard darker stories of sexual abuse and murder.
Over the past several years, female trimmigrants have been emerging from pot farms nestled in the forests with tales of forced blow jobs to get paid by their bosses and topless trimming for wage increases, the LA Weekly and Reveal News reported in September 2016. Some claimed they'd been held against their will, drugged and raped. Since the crimes occur on illegitimate farms, many of them aren't reported. Victim advocates say the problem is worsening with every harvest.
"Everybody looks at the region like it's the Land of Oz," Maryann Hayes Mariani, a coordinator for the North Coast Rape Crisis Team, told the Weekly. "I'm just so tired of pretending like it's not happening here."
Kruger says they also heard about a place known as Murder Mountain in the Rancho Sequoia subdivision, about 45 minutes east of Garberville. The mountainous region was the site of proposed dam project in the late '60s but quickly filled with pot farmers who snatched up small plots.
In the early '80s, two trimmigrant serial killers, James and Suzan Carson, appeared wrapped in occult philosophy and believed themselves to be exterminators of witches. They murdered one of their fellow workers and buried him in chicken manure. They were eventually arrested and confessed to other murders that included their roommate Karen Barnes and a man named John Hillyar. They were suspected of nine other murders.
Although the Carsons were convicted in 1984 and sentenced to 50 years to life in prison, the legend of Murder Mountain has not gone away; disappearances and murders continue to occur in the area. Chris Cook from Cook & Associates Private Investigations in Humboldt County told the local newspaper in 2013, "I really want people to know that if you are coming up here, you could be taking your life in your hands."
A grander scale
A few days after their arrival to the Pacific Northwest, Johnson and Kruger met a wise, old pot trimmer who had this "very flowy thing about him," Johnson says. He'd been a teacher for a while and spent the past 15 years migrating to the Emerald Triangle to work. He suggested that they trek farther north into Oregon, where the pot farms paid hourly wages at lower rates but the work was steady and regulated.
"You always make less money when you go legit," Johnson says.
It only took them a few hours to reach the small city of Ashland, Oregon, a place known for its Shakespeare festival and its susceptibility to wildfires. Upon arrival, they checked Craigslist like the old trimmer suggested and found a temporary agency for pot farm work. It conducted its business out of hotel where other trimmigrants had gathered to sign up for services and offered what Johnson calls "solid work," but it wasn't immediate.
So they returned to Craigslist and found a pot farmer needing trimmers, but the pay was only $15 an hour. "The pay scale was a fifth of what we were told we could make," Kruger says.
It also meant that Kruger wouldn't be able to move to L.A. and work the comedy circuit in hopes of landing a gig at the Comedy Store, a legendary club in West Hollywood where comedians could try out material in front of casting agents and talent scouts.
They were interviewed and hired in the parking lot of a Burger King and immediately taken to the job site in the foothills of the Siskiyou and Cascade mountain ranges. As Johnson spotted the pot farm on a rise in a valley, he was filled with awe greater than he felt after dropping acid in the Grand Canyon a few days before his arrival.
"It's the biggest grow I've ever seen," he says. "It was beautiful. It kind of beat the Grand Canyon in my head. It was impressive, and I'm like, that can't be our carve."
The trimming cycle
At the farm in Oregon, Johnson and Kruger used a key code to get into the gate and clock in for work. Three companies from three farms were in one big building on the property and grew both indoors and outdoors. They worked with about 10 other people, heading to the farm early in the morning and leaving when it was too dark to see the plants.
They were also required to get marijuana handlers cards from the Oregon Liquor Control Commission. It required studying a manual, passing a 30-question test and paying a $100 fee.
Johnson and Kruger learned from senior workers, one of whom grew up working grows in Hawaii. "He was just super fast," Johnson says. "It was embarrassing how fast he was."
They harvested the big plants first, breaking them down into smaller pieces, curing them and trimming off the large leaves. Johnson says at first he went at it with his gloved hands, but they quickly got covered in residue from the marijuana plants.
"It was great for later because you could throw your glove in the glove box and resin would get hard," he says. "You could just pull out the glove, and the resin would drop off. We would fill up ibuprofen bottles to smoke it later." (It's one of the oldest methods of making hashish. Workers roll the sticky buds between their bare hands, letting the gluelike resin collect before rubbing it off to produce high-quality hashish.)
"There is enough variation [as a pot trimmer] to keep you interested," Johnson says. "You might be bucking down [breaking branches] or spraying moldy buds to keep it from spreading."
Johnson says marijuana branches had crooks attached for drying and tags for tracking. They hung them in dry rooms where Johnson often volunteered to work because at 80 degrees, it was warmer than the 30- to 40-degree weather outside.
The dry room was filled with white plastic nets on the wall and a sliding rack. He used the crooks to hang the plant or the thickest stem if a crook hadn't been attached. More than $30 million worth of 20 cannabis variations, such as Jack Frost, Woody Cheese and Bubba Kush, would hang for a day or so before being placed in plastic bins. Every bud was tracked and weighed because state inspectors would show up to do an audit.
Then the trimming cycle started. Trimmigrants use small pruning shears or scissors to trim the bud.
"You just rotate the bud and make sure you're not taking too much off," Johnson says. "You're just trying to get those little fanlings left behind and trying to shape it without losing bud and scraping off THC."
Workers sat for hours on end and weeks at a time to perfect the crop.
"The trimming was very tedious," Kruger says. "You would get carpal tunnel because you are using this tiny scissors and not trying to ruin the bud. Both Josh and I just had horrible problems with our back. We were looking around and [realized] we are no different than any other farm immigrant who was working orchards."
They also weren't living it up like Cheech and Chong on the pot farm. Instead, they waited until after work to enjoy the fruits of their labor. "It's against the law for them to give weed from the farm," Johnson says.
'Like summer camp'
Johnson reflects on his sojourn to the Emerald Triangle and his return to the stage one Wednesday morning in early January in the living room of his mother's brick home in Stop Six, an area that was once the sixth transit stop on the Northern Texas Traction Co. railroad that ran between Fort Worth and Dallas. It's been known as the projects, the ghetto and a 'hood rife with gang violence and crime. Fort Worth city leaders recently dedicated $2.5 million for neighborhood improvements, including debris removal and police cameras.
"As far as I know, I am the only working comic living in Stop Six," Johnson says.
Kruger only stayed with him for a couple of months in the Emerald Triangle before he headed home to Dallas to join a girlfriend he never really left.
"I saw it from the moment that we left," Johnson says. "I knew that it was going to be one of those mad for a bit and talking every night kind of thing. He had made an impulsive decision, and I feel like I got him wrapped up in the whirlwind of my manic episode. He was a great friend, but I knew I was going to stay and he was going to leave."
Johnson didn't stay in Oregon alone. Another longtime friend from North Texas, Danny Rivera, joined him and remained with him until they returned in April. Johnson says they were in more of the same place in life emotionally. "I knew that when he comes back, I will come back," he says.
Life on the farm became a good routine for Johnson and Rivera. They rented a house not far from the Tally Ho, a local pub where they'd eat breakfast, lunch and dinner, and adopted a cat, Neil Catrick Harris, who acts like a dog. Johnson brought him home to Texas, where he takes him on walks and plays fetch with him in Stop Six.
Johnson says he did a couple of standup routines for weed and received invitations to return to the stage, but he wasn't ready. He also got a mental health diagnosis of bipolar disorder, which he says was nice to finally get identified.
Then the pair met yet another Josh Johnson. "Out of serendipity, we ended up running into him," Rivera says. "He wasn't as much of a doppelganger as the comedian Josh Johnson who helped to send him into that mental breakdown."
Built like a giant and married with three kids, this Josh Johnson was a pot trimmer and a "funny white dude" who liked to talk sports and nerd culture, Johnson says.
"It was kind of a reminder that the universe isn't always out there to get you," Rivera says. "It's also there to amaze and surprise you even when the chips are down."
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They quickly became friends and even joined his Tuesday night poker game.
"I think he helped me to feel safe with this other person with the same name," Johnson says.
Leaving the pot farm and tranquility of the Pacific Northwest was hard, but returning to North Texas had its own sort of tranquility for Johnson. He'd finally seen life beyond the stage and found a balance emotionally, mentally and spiritually; obtaining medication for his mental illness also helped.
"It was like a great life experience, like summer camp," says Johnson, who recently recorded his second comedy album, Tabitha 2: Heterosexual Princess. "I don't think I was cut out to do that kind of work. I had to get back to work doing standup. I'd taken enough time off running from my problems. I was ready to deal with them."