WILLITS — Except for traffic passing through on Highway 101, this northern Mendocino County city is relatively quiet much of the year. But for three months in the fall, it gets an influx of world travelers lured by marijuana-trimming jobs, temporarily swelling the town’s population of under 5,000 and instilling it with an international flavor.
They’re called trimmigrants and they are an integral part of the North Coast’s lucrative marijuana industry, estimated to be worth billions of dollars and widely considered to be a major economic driver in Mendocino and Humboldt counties. But, like the pot industry itself, reaction to their presence is mixed. The migrant workers contribute to the economy, but many effectively are homeless. Though the growers who employ them typically provide housing or a place to camp, when not working, they camp illegally in parks, alleys and along railroad tracks and rivers. Some can’t find jobs and turn to panhandling and frequenting food banks.
The annual march of migrant marijuana workers has occurred for years throughout the pot-rich North Coast, from Sonoma County to the Oregon border and beyond during the traditional fall cannabis harvest season, which runs roughly from mid-September through the end of November. The phenomenon has gained a worldwide reputation, and now draws an international crowd to rural places that are not on the usual tourist guide list.
“It’s really a kind of fascinating phenomenon,” Willits City Councilwoman Holly Madrigal said.
At a local pub on a recent evening, German, French, Italian and Spanish accents could be heard among the conversations as about two dozen foreigners gathered to meet up with fellow travelers or play music.
“It’s a melting pot,” said a man from Spain who gave his name only as Paolo. Like most of the foreign trimmigrants interviewed for this article, he said he’s working in the cannabis industry to earn enough to continue traveling the world. He also works as a freelance photographer and online graphic designer.
Most know before they arrive where to go to find work — typically outside supermarkets and natural food stores that potential employers are known to frequent in search of laborers. Those places include the Wal-Mart in Ukiah and Safeway in Willits.
They also know about local hangouts where they can find each other.
A man from Germany said he didn’t know two of his friends were even in the United States when he ran into them at the Schanachie Pub on Willits’ main drag, where customers are invited to mark their home countries on world maps already thickly covered in sticky dots.
The owner of the pub declined to be interviewed.
Trimming cannabis is tedious work — requiring hours of sitting and repetitive motion — but it’s not difficult to learn and it pays well.
Using special tiny scissors sold in hardware stores throughout the North Coast, trimmers earn anywhere from $100 to $200 per pound of finished product, snipping out the unwanted leaves from the resin-rich cannabis buds, which contain most of the plant’s medicinal and intoxication values.
“If you are really, really fast, you can trim two pounds a day,” maybe more, said Eric, 30, of Guatemala, as he stood outside the Willits Safeway with his backpack, sleeping bag and Argentinian traveling companion, Sol.
Like most others in the trimming business, they would not reveal their full names, an acknowledgment that marijuana laws remain murky, at best, rendering trimmers subject to possible arrest. Legitimate medicinal marijuana cooperatives aren’t supposed to pay employees, so most of the hired hands likely are working for people who also are growing marijuana illegally.