Trimming Season Leads to Local Tension in Humboldt County


“No work here, keep moving,” say signs in store windows greeting nomadic groups of mostly young people who arrive in the Emerald Triangle, California’s legendary pot-growing counties of Mendocino, Humboldt and Trinity, every fall hoping to find jobs harvesting and processing cannabis. Called “trimmigrants” by the locals, the travelers come to experience marijuana mecca, looking to take part in the epic haul of more than 100,000 plants grown in Humboldt every year. Flooding small towns like Garberville, Laytonville and Redway, these travelers seek jobs that might pay $20 an hour for several weeks straight, painstakingly snipping the sugar leaves away from buds, manicuring them for sale in dispensaries or for out-of-state export.

"No work here, keep moving" says a sticker sporting a sentiment increasingly popular in Humboldt County.

However, for those without local connections, the reality is that it’s tough to find work, and there are many more migratory trimmers than there are jobs. The influx of trimmigrants brings big-city problems to these bucolic towns, since the lack of housing and services leaves most would-be pot processors living on the streets or camping illegally in the woods. Homeless people tripping on acid have threatened residents, and many parents are afraid to let their children walk home from the school bus by themselves.

Citing garbage, loitering, nuisance behavior and out-of-control dogs, local residents Tara and Melissa Sutherland have taken action against disrespectful travelers, telling journalist Kym Kemp that “In the middle of daylight, there was some guy masturbating, other people smoking pot right there on the sidewalks, blocking the sidewalks, [and] their dogs not being on leashes.”

Travelers from all over the world camp on small town streets looking for working trimming cannabis.

The sisters have started a citizen’s action group called “Take Back Our Town,” and are now patrolling the streets, asking travelers to pick up litter, clean up after their dogs and keep them leashed, and to not block local businesses. “When you have to walk around a crowd of people smoking pot in our doorways just to go into the bank to pay your bills, it’s overwhelming and I can see why so many people are frustrated and fed up with it,” says Tara Sutherland when interviewed by phone. “We’re not out there to be rude to people or disrespect them, but we want people to respect our towns and communities. We’re out there trying to help people and let them know our concerns.”

Increasing tensions between homeless people and local residents have erupted in violence recently, with a group of travelers being attacked by a gang of youths wielding a bat, and visitors being targeted by paintball guns. Kym Kemp reports a vehicle being driven into a homeless camp and “running over sleeping bags without knowing whether or not someone was in them.”

Describing an understaffed police department unable to enforce existing laws against vagrancy and nuisance behavior, Tara hopes citizen action will defuse the situation and help avoid any further escalation of violence. “I’ve heard people say they’re so sick of it that they want to go to town and beat up all the homeless, and it doesn’t have to come down to that.”

Emerald Triangle residents are infuriated by illegal campers who trash the forest.

Local homeless activist Debra Carey doesn’t find the actions of Take Back Our Town to be helpful. “Our community has a history of vigilantism and it kind of ramps it up for us,” she saying, describing a situation where local businesspeople that benefit from the cannabis industry dislike the atmosphere created by the trimmigrants.

“The whole county is known for growing marijuana and we have a whole industry here. People come to work in Humboldt County and are met with a really tough situation. There’s no place to legally sleep… food is scarce, and we’ve lost common ground, so people are camping on private property or they are downtown and that creates a problem for the community every year.”

Debra believes a solution could be found by establishing a place for people to legally camp, saying that “having a place to be” with shower and toilet facilities, would lessen the tensions between travelers and local residents. “Everywhere there’s no common ground left, they’re stuck sitting on business’ front doors, and then these businesspeople in turn make these types of groups.”

Take Back Our Town claims that travelers loitering, blocking businesses and smoking on the street make everyday life difficult for local residents.

Most local residents believe that offering any type of services or legal camping will just attract more people without jobs or steady income. Carey explains that there are no homeless shelters or resources in Southern Humboldt, and affordable housing stock is scarce due to demand for indoor cultivation space. “We need to put people instead of plants in the houses,” Debra says, estimating that there are usually 125 to 140 un-housed individuals living around Garberville, with the population peaking during the trimming season at around 500.

While cold weather and winter rains usually motivate travelers to leave town, the destruction from the Valley Fire prompted people from Lake and Calaveras counties to seek shelter elsewhere, adding to demand for housing and jobs. “What we need to do is work together as a community and find some solutions now,” Carey says, before the situation continues to worsen.

For those intent on traveling to the Emerald Triangle, locals advise securing a job before you arrive. Most growers aren’t going to hire someone they’ve never met before, since strangers pose a security risk when valuable plants are being processed. There are obvious safety concerns for trimmigrants as well, and police caution against going to a remote grow-op that might not have cell service or an easy escape route. Many people have gone missing in the Humboldt hills or worse. Avoid illegal encampments, such as Garberville’s “Hippie Hill,” which is rife with violence, hard drug overdoses and human waste.

It’s not clear when the situation in Humboldt will improve, but its residents are fed up with the influx of travelers seeking to party on the streets. Take Back Our Town is organizing a program to fund bus tickets for people seeking to leave for homeless shelters or rehab facilities, and will continue to walk through town confronting unruly visitors. “We know we can’t clean up the streets and make everyone leave, we don’t want everyone to leave,” Tara Sutherland says, “we want everyone to be happy together, but it’s not going to work unless everyone actually works together and respects our town.”

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