Big Head Buck's story is a familiar one in this economy: A 27-year-old special-education teacher for Portland Public Schools, Buck—who declined to give his real name and provided his own alias—was laid off at the end of the 2010-11 school year. Financially, he was stable, with paychecks filtering in through the summer and unemployment benefits on the horizon.
But Buck says he needed structure. And money. So he went to Northern California to trim marijuana plants near Ukiah, a Mendocino County city known less for its majestic landscapes than for the psychotropic treats produced in its forests and farmlands.
For one month, Buck lived on a friend's legally licensed farm, trimming stalks of marijuana for 14 hours a day, shaping the sticky nuggets that light up pipes nationwide. He lived out of his car (most of his colleagues slept in tents) and spent 30 straight days trimming leaves from the dried buds, netting $200 per pound.
This part of Buck's story is also familiar in Oregon.
"For some of the people, this is the money that they make for the year," Buck says.
Marijuana is big business in Mendocino, Humboldt and Trinity counties, popularly referred to as the Emerald Triangle. A Mendocino County-sponsored report says cannabis accounts for two-thirds of the economy of that county, with economic gains of more than $1 billion annually.
That's a tremendous amount of money from three counties with a combined population of approximately 236,000—less than half that of the city of Portland.
Like any agrarian industry, the Emerald Triangle's medicinal and illegal growers alike rely on manual labor—a scissor-wielding, seasonal worker army rivaling Aspen's ski industry.
"It's like this tall tale that's actually true," says Gomo (who, like Buck, chose his own nickname), a Eugene native who has seen scores of his friends migrate south and return with sticky fingers and pockets full of cash. Asked how vast numbers of people discover these opportunities, Gomo simply shrugs. "We live in fucking Oregon. Of course you go work on pot farms."
It's impossible to get an accurate count of the number of people who participate, but those interviewed for this story claim they trimmed with four to 15 other people at sites ranging from huge greenhouses glowing with fluorescent lights to small yurts with dirt floors. Some grows were described as "summer camps for potheads," with hippie musicians strumming guitars around endless bonfires. Others sound like Colombian coke farms fortified deep in the redwoods. And there are thousands upon thousands of them, though the exact number is impossible to ascertain.
"I lived in Humboldt for a time, and things livened up around there when folks showed up from all over the world, really, for the harvest season," writes Ellen Komp, deputy director of the California division of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, via email. "Local businesses reported an upsurge in sales at that time of the year, for various reasons. And, of course, by performing migrant labor work, trimmers are part of the cottage industry."
Mary, a freelance writer originally from Pennsylvania, reported people enjoying the spoils of their labors in Arcata, a Humboldt County town near which she spent two months trimming in 2011.
"Everyone in town, that whole city runs on pot money," she says. "No matter what your business is, all those people who are coming into your shops and restaurants with stacks of cash, that's where it's coming from. So everyone in the community is supportive of it."
Buck also witnessed people flaunting cash, but his impression was different .
"Those people are being fucking idiots," he says. "Just because you're getting away with something illegal doesn't mean you should go slap a cop across the face.â
Growers and laborers do take some precautions to duck legal scrutiny. Most farms don't provide take-home weed. Mary says she was asked to scrape Rasta bumper stickers from her car. Many workers created alibis to account for their presence, and planned escape routes in case the feds came knocking.
Special Agent Casey Rettig, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, says the agency tends to encounter mostly Mexican nationals when busting grows on public land, and gathers information mostly from evidence left behind at the sites.
"Individuals who are living in the grows often have pre-planned escape routes. There are very few arrests," says Rettig, adding that, due to the low number of arrests on the sites, it's impossible to say how many Oregonians are working on grows.
Portland DJ Professor Daddy—again, his chosen moniker—has worked on farms off and on since 2004. He agreed that escape routes are essential. But he, like every other person interviewed for this story, said his fear of being busted was short lived.
"When it took me hours to get where I was going to, [I stopped worrying]. We were out in the middle of nowhere." says Daddy, 30. "The escape route is, you just go down a couple hundred yards, you go down a couple football fields [on a country road] and you're on a different property."
Daddy says he's noticed fundamental changes in the atmosphere of the Triangle over the years. New farms sprouted up, run by folks whose images weren't exactly attuned to the scene's usual hippies.
"Once I saw some of the shady people who moved down there, some of the gangster dudes with pit bulls and guns—it got weird," Daddy says. "You'd be staying at somebody's house and you'd hear gunshots. It was like the Old West."
But the gunshots—which Daddy admits were probably from country boys just being country boys—were no match for another threat: the "Dark Rainbow," a sinister contingency that has descended to harsh the mellow of the entire scene.
"The Dark Rainbow—which I coined—refers to those often emaciated, dreadlocked, snotty, pretentious, pseudo-spiritualist, megalomaniac, insecure assholes that travel the globe thinking they're better than everyone else," Daddy says, sounding a bit like a yokel whose vacation town has been invaded by yuppies. "The main problem, aside from a forest fire or not getting paid, is being around really annoying people. And crazy people."
Still, Dark Rainbow, transients and gun-toting baddies aside, marijuana is a way of life in the Emerald Triangle, a system of forested small towns that's every bit as pleasant and welcoming as its postcards suggest, right down to the mom-and-pop glass shops and public hula-hoopers. That mythos and image alone will probably continue to draw earthy Oregonians in need of a little extra money to the farms.
But not Big Head Buck, whose experience was less like the dream getaway to a hedonistic Shangri-La described by others. Buck was terrible at trimming, he says, netting less than $100 daily for 14-hour shifts. His car broke down on the way home. He was so far away from a cellphone signal that when Portland Public Schools called to offer him his job back, he missed the calls.
And Buck doesn't even puff.
"Hell, no, I wouldn't go back," he says. "My thumb and my middle finger are still numb from trimming. Nerve damage. Repetitive stress. I wish I did smoke pot. The potheads did so much better than I did. They can just home in and do it. All I could focus on was how much my hand hurt, and how little I wanted to keep doing it."