Harvest by robot

As California’s cannabis industry continues to flourish, so does new technology options for harvesting the plants. But what effects does automation have on the people who trim seasonally and on the price?

illustration by Maria Ratinova

Californians had high hopes that cannabis legalization would help the environment, boost the economy and reduce violence linked to drug trafficking. However, as farmers grapple with new regulations and as the industry opens up to investment and automation, that high appears to be fading.

The first people left behind were the trimmers, workers who would normally be hired to cut excess leaves off cannabis nugs and prepare them for sale.

“I only found a few jobs this season. It’s been really devastating for me. Like I now work at Taco Bell, where usually I’d be helping grow cannabis right now,” said Leilani, a resident of Santa Cruz County who has worked as a cannabis trimmer for nearly a decade. (Because of her work in the illicit cannabis industry, SN&R withheld her last name.)

Leilani said that she used to trim 3 pounds a day and make $250 per pound, but lately she’s taken as little as $80 a pound. Leilani also said that the cultivators she used to work for are no longer making enough to afford trimmers, so they are either trimming themselves or turning to machines.

“It seemed like something that was usually a guarantee, turned into, ’Oh, we have a trim machine now, so we don’t even need any workers,’” she said.

At 20 years old, Leilani is still too young to work for a legal grow, but she remains determined to work with cannabis in the future.

For those who do manage to find trim work on the legal market, the money isn’t bad. Pollen McIntosh makes $25 an hour at a legal grow in Moss Landing in Monterey County.

But she said the business she works at now incorporated the use of trim machines in its pitch to investors. “What I heard is that investors want to know that there’s the proper technology on board,” McIntosh said. “So they introduced the trim machine into this indoor [grow] that I’m at, and we all feel this slight animosity toward it, obviously.”

McIntosh said the buds still require a careful and extensive clean-up process, and she doesn’t believe the trim machine has saved any additional time—or money. She recalled that she noticed the first wave of trim machines arrive in Oregon, shortly after legalization passed there in 2015.

“It was really sad because it takes off the tricombs and little hairs, and it kind of like tears up the pot,” McIntosh said.

McIntosh added that growers couldn’t pay the trimmers anymore because the price of cannabis had plummeted to as low as $400 per pound compared to a minimum of $1,000 per pound at its peak.

The plummeting prices hit no other region harder than the Emerald Triangle, which is comprised of Mendocino, Trinity and Humboldt counties.

Joey Burger, operator of Trim Scene Solutions, a company in Redway that specializes in commercial and small-scale machinery, said at first it was nice seeing fewer trimmers travel through town because “things were getting out of control.”

He said automation is a necessity for growers to survive new state regulations, as well as new capital from investors to a handful of companies so they can sell at lower costs.

“This community was made up of 10,000 farmers, and regulation has literally wiped it out,” Burger said. “Businesses are closing left and right. A town that used to be thriving with activity is now a bunch of empty storefronts. It’s like watching a loved one die in front of you.”

Overall, Humboldt County is projecting a 5% drop in sales tax revenue, according to deputy county administrator Sean Quincey. The two industries most affected are automotive sales and agriculture supply stores, which include the gardening stores that supply cultivators.

“It looks like it’s rebounded a bit, but we’re waiting for information to come in to get a clearer picture,” Quincey said.

Beginning in 2017, Humboldt County began using satellites to spot unlicensed cannabis grows and issue fines and abatement letters. Quincey told SN&R he could not comment on the abatement letters.

Burger said many of his customers report being fined $10,000 per violation per day for issues such as improper fencing and road repair. Growers have 10 days to either shut down their operation completely, or contest the fine.

“A lot of people up here just walked away from their land after they got these letters,” he said.

Quincey said he hopes a new county program called Project Trellis can help independent growers. “Our grants and loans program really aims at helping out the small cultivator because the small cultivator has limited means,” he said. “They often have limited experience and limited technical experience, just knowledge on things like accounting and payroll, so that’s what our reinvestment program is really centered on.”

Project Trellis includes an equity program to help people hurt by the war on drugs, including cannabis arrests prior to legalization. “We want to help those people who have been affected get back on their feet and get a strong foothold on the market,” Quincey said.

Cannabis regulations vary depending on the locality, according to business lawyer Hilary Bricken, who has advised clients in the cannabis industry for 10 years. Some cities are creating barriers to keep out “criminals” and protect neighborhoods, and using different tools to go after unlicensed growers. For example, the city of Pasadena largely ignored individual growers and targeted landlords, penalizing them and even shutting down their utilities. In West Hollywood, officials only approved architectural plans that complied with the city’s urban design standards.

Even when farmers do survive regulations, they still have to find a dispensary to sell to and a buyer to pay for it, which Burger said has become a rigged game.

“They’re having to compete with companies who have hundreds of millions of dollars” and that are “literally paying to get shelf space in dispensaries,” he said. “They’re selling cannabis at a loss, also, just so they can say, ’Hey we’re the number one flower brand in California,’ and raise more money.”

“That’s the whole game, is just raising money. It’s all smoke and mirrors to look like they’re successful.”

Companies bidding for shelf space is not new. It happens in grocery stores, and Bricken said it crossed over to cannabis as the market grew more competitive.

“If you’re buying up shelf space and also paying a fee to exclude competition, or if you’re going to make sure my competition is way out of sight, that’s potentially anti-competitive,” she said.

Bricken said she believes state regulators may be more interested in licensing and getting people into the marketplace than investigating anti-competitive conduct.

SN&R reached out to the state Bureau of Cannabis Control, but it declined to comment on whether it currently enforces or has enforced any regulations against anti-competitive conduct within the cannabis industry since its legalization, specifically when companies are selling below cost and buying shelf space.

While legalization was meant to end violence and environmental damage of illegal cannabis operations, Burger said because outdoor grows are so easy to spot via satellite, the new regulations have forced a lot of people indoors, and back onto the black market.

“The only licensed farmers I know that are surviving right now are funneling everything into the black market,” he said. “That’s the only way they’re surviving.”