As my car twisted up the dusty mountain road toward the California farm where I'd be working for the next several months, I tried to imagine what lay ahead. Having recently quit my job after years of chronic stress, I'd decided to try a new direction, and had excitedly signed up to learn about beekeeping through hands-on experience, trading my labor for room and board through a renowned international agriculture program.
The characters I’d seen along my drive from the Santa Clara mountains painted a vivid picture of the desolate area I'd be inhabiting. Fearing I'd made a wrong turn, I had stopped to ask two women in a pick-up truck where I was. They gladly assured me I was headed in the right direction, but not before obviously looking me over, checking my intentions. As I left, I noticed the shotgun in their back seat.
I had heard about runners being shot in Humboldt County because they were unknowingly jogging too close to a prized marijuana field, but I tried not to ruminate on what fate might have in store for me.
As I climbed higher, the quaint mountain properties disappeared and I rolled into a wasted sky city. After too many potholes, abandoned waste sites, and tight curves where I felt as if I’d fly off the thousand-foot mountain edge, I finally reached the property, where I was greeted by an attractive farmer named Ben. He encouraged me to “set up my tent anywhere.”
I knew we were in rattlesnake territory, but this was what I’d signed up for, so I set up my tent on ground covered by prickly leaves. Early afternoon on the day of my arrival, Ben disappeared until 10 p.m., leaving me with no inkling of where I could eat a meal. Forget driving to find a sandwich; we were in literal no-man’s land, hours away from any business.
I spent the day wandering, searching for any clues of the bee hives and olive trees that I’d been told I’d be working with. There were none in sight, and I couldn’t help but wonder what was in the abandoned greenhouse just down a crooked path. When I inquired about the sleeping quarters that Ben had advertised on the farm's website, he reluctantly took me into the backwoods, where we encountered an 8x8 secluded concrete shack. It was filthy and reeked of prison cell; it was clear the sheets hadn’t been changed in years, and the only amenity, a stereo, was long-broken.
Ben relayed, with a snicker, that the shack had been used by Symbionese Liberation Army to kidnap and hold hostage heiress Patty Hearst, daughter of infamous media baron and scandal artist William Hearst. I assumed Ben was full of shit until his friend reluctantly confirmed it several days later. He also told me all about Farmer Ben’s legal issues, which included threatening assault with a deadly weapon after a neighbor said he'd reveal the farm's, yes, illegal medical marijuana-growing operation to the feds because it was ruining the morale of the neighborhood.
Farmer Ben had previously been active on the farmers' market scene, but he had obviously decided to take his farm in a different direction.
(Given the desolate location and lack of care bestowed upon me and the land by the farmer, I was not entirely shocked to learn that his otherwise crop-empty farm housed a much larger hidden operation. Still, I had to see it for my own eyes to believe the intricacy of his deceptive design.)
From then on, Farmer Ben came home late and drunk every day. His intoxicated flirtation made me feel uncomfortable, and at times unsafe. Nonetheless, I tried to earn his trust by remaining steadfast. Maybe I was naive, but I guess I still hoped that the bee hives would be revealed, that I might finally learn how to develop my own apiary.
After several days, during which Ben asked me to "guard the property" from potential break-ins by angry armed neighbors while he visited his lawyer (I also plucked manzanita berries to feed to the pigs, who chose to eat my tent instead), Ben finally took me down to the mysterious abandoned greenhouse where he revealed hundreds of splendid green medical marijuana plants. They were his prized possessions. He boasted of deceiving the authorities; mentioned how kind he was, giving weed to all his friends, while simultaneously claiming that he’d be making thousands and thousands of illegal dollars, all in one breath. I saw the greed flash in his eyes.
My job over the next several days was to care for the plants. I don’t smoke and had never seen a live marijuana plant before. During this time, I learned that there were gun wars going on around the mountain top -- an outcome of greed, corrupt growing practices, addiction, local upheaval about the marijuana growing network and rampant mental instability within the community.
Though some people probably see marijuana farms as fun-loving, free-spirited hippie paradise, the dark side of ganja cultivation was definitely revealed to me. After I learned that the police had recently confiscated 20-something guns from Ben's yurt and that in this particular county, California law deems possession of more than six mature plants, even for medical use, illegal, I hinted to Farmer Ben that I might be leaving earlier than expected.
Ben said he had found a loophole in the law -- that medical growers were not limited to a certain number of plants as long as their grow-operation was deemed a “cooperative” or a “collective,” with the intention of supplying numerous people with medical marijuana. (The laws really are confusing and hard to articulate; read this if you're curious.) He noted that other volunteers had “tried to leave early” and he had not appreciated it.
Feeling disturbed not only by the guns and weed, but also by the creepy sleeping quarters and Ben's continuous inability to feed me, I fled, after 4 and a half days, at 3:45 in the morning. I left behind a peace sign made of paper cranes as a feeble attempt at a “thank you” gesture.
If you're wondering how on Earth Farmer Ben got hooked up with a reputable agricultural program, well, all farmers have to do to become a part of the program network is be organic. Ben met that qualification, and at one time prior to my arrival, was running a bee and berry farm. He wasn't the only farmer in the network who was growing marijuana.
As per the network, volunteers are walking in blindly at their own risk and an increasing number of incidents where volunteers are asked to do things outside of their ethical and legal standards are cropping up. The organization has been under pressure to scrutinize farmers more carefully before allowing them to join the network.
I tried to leave a "warning review" for other volunteers on his website to let them know what they'd be getting into, but by the time I got to that a week after fleeing, his profile had been removed from the network website. (I assume he removed it to protect himself, but it could have been at the request of authorities, given his assault-threat legal troubles.)
The Los Angeles area alone reportedly has more than 1,000 legal marijuana dispensaries for people who want or need pot for personal and medical use. Regulations vary depending on location, and marijuana growers can avoid raids by keeping neighborhood complaints nonexistent. Still, pot is obviously a hot commodity due to its mood-altering effects, and lots of growers fear losing valuable crops to break-ins and resistance from neighbors.
Occasional wars break out amongst growers; it's not pretty. While some state and local jurisdictions may approve dispensaries and growing ops, weed growth is illegal and punishable under federal law, and the government has developed advanced methods for detecting and busting large operations.
Grow at your own risk, mind your neighbors, and -- as I painfully learned -- please, please, remember to feed your laborers.