Twenty years ago, in our rural subdivision south of Laytonville, a man bought three parcels from the same Los Angeles heiress who also sold us our land. Dave, as I’ll call our neighbor, didn’t live here; he drove up from San Francisco on weekends — camping, hiking, stopping by to chat, share cookies and give us the latest gate code to his parcel by the creek so we could swim.
For a few years, we didn’t know Dave grew pot. We learned from Ricky, his tenant farmer, a sweet guy from Humboldt, who told us about his operation one day when he passed us on the road in his turquoise pickup and invited us over to check out his “girls.”
We became pot farmers, too, when friends offered to bring us clones and teach us how to grow, harvest, cure and trim. I worried a lot, then figured why not?, since Prop 215 said it was legal to grow a few plants for medical use. My portfolio of nasty knee and disk X-rays in hand, I breezed through my exam at MediCann in Ukiah and got my medical marijuana card.
Yesterday, I hiked Dave’s parcel, the one where he camped and where Ricky had his garden. A bank now owns all three parcels and has put them up for sale. Apparently, Dave used his land as collateral on a business loan that didn’t turn out well.
It was sad to see the remains of Ricky’s garden hidden among the oaks and madrones. The fencing to keep out the deer and wild horses had collapsed; so had his fabric pots. It was not a sinister place like the grows law-enforcement agencies sometimes show the public — garbage-strewn landscapes where drums of diesel fuel and bags of rat poison leak into nearby streams. At Ricky’s garden, a few half-inch irrigation pipes came and went to nowhere, but the fabulous redwood combination shower and outhouse he built (and always intended to plumb) was still standing. Above the garden, an aluminum drying shed was holding its own in the clearing; rust and critters had invaded a propane grill, a wood stove and a couple of trailers.
The scene reminded me of the day my partner visited Billy to consult with him about a pest problem.
“You just missed the DEA,” Ricky called that afternoon. “Sixteen vehicles came and cut down all my plants.”
“Are they headed here?” Our driveway was a stone’s throw from his.
“They’re gone. You’re safe. They handcuffed me and my gerry crew, but they didn’t arrest us."
“Your gerry crew?”
“Geriatrics,” he laughed, despite his trauma. “They’re all retired. Don’t get enough from Social Security to live on, so I hire them to trim. Best crew I’ve ever had.”
“Are you OK?”
“I worked so hard on those girls, and all that’s left is nothing.”
Dave hired a big-time San Francisco attorney, and eventually everyone’s legal troubles went away. Ricky returned to grow at Dave’s for many more summers despite the brain injury he suffered in a diving accident. He was happy. He had fallen in love, had a wife and child and painted houses for a living. We weren’t sure that Dave, who was deep into his business by then and rarely visited, even knew Ricky still grew pot at his place. There were no more raids.
In 2014, as the California legislature debated new medical marijuana regulations, my partner and I joined dozens of small farmers in Mendocino County going public about growing weed. We attended meetings at the Grange and Harwood Hall, organizing ourselves and lobbying local and state politicians to consider the needs of small farmers. We stopped calling our crop by its street names, referring to it as cannabis to give it, and us, more legitimacy. We joined the Emerald Growers Association and a local farmers’ cooperative whose members shared information about regenerative farming practices, irrigation, distribution, manufacturing and permitting. The Laytonville Garden Club launched its amazing Cannabis Renaissance series, bringing a lawyer, a doctor, a lab owner, a plant breeder and soil and water scientists to share their expertise with local growers.
There was so much happening that I began covering our meetings for local papers, eventually convincing KZYX to host a cannabis talk show. In 2016, my partner and I proudly procured our first Mendocino County 9.31 program cannabis cultivation permit. Flow Kana distributed our newly legal buds, even filming a short documentary about our little farm, Wild Women Herbals. We hired an attorney and several consultants, created an LLC, and filled out endless state and county forms. We were poised to press “Send” on our 2017 California cannabis cultivator’s license application when we came to our senses.
We were gerries now. We were too old to raise, cure and trim enough cannabis to cover our farm expenses and keep pace with the ever-growing, ever-changing list of costly county and state regulations. There were rules and fees for everything: water use and discharge, track and trace technology, zoning, building codes, bookkeeping, taxes, payroll and more. We couldn’t wrap our minds around all the red tape. We would wake up in a sweat at night wondering what form we had forgotten or which agency might pounce on us. The black market was a breeze compared to the bureaucratic nightmare called compliance.
We were sad, shocked, relieved and done. We continued to raise a few plants for personal use, but, next to them in our garden that year, we grew watermelon, pole beans, squash, kale, tomatoes, eggplant, zucchini and cucumbers.
Today, the garden below our house looks a lot like Ricky’s: Our pots are overgrown with grass; the weeds come up to my chest. We hope to hire someone this summer with a backhoe to help us haul up all that wonderful dirt we made for the flower and vegetable beds by our house.
I don’t miss the backbreaking work and constant worries of cannabis farming. But I do miss the beauty of the buds bursting with resin and terpenes in the fall. I miss the community of farmers and friends we made in our growing years. I miss the feeling that we were on the cutting edge of a green revolution and an exploding industry that could bring healing herb to people who needed it and ensure our financial stability for years to come.
I love and admire our friends who are still fighting the good fight, growing beautiful organic cannabis, paying the fees and taxes, complying with the laws and working with lawmakers to revise the most onerous, costly and unnecessary cannabis regulations.
Meantime, there are a lot of us in the hills of Mendocino County who have abandoned our dream of becoming legal, respectable and profitable. Not all of us are old, but many are, and we pray we can survive on less. If the growing number of empty storefronts in Willits is any indication, the entire county must learn, and quickly, to survive on less.
I hope the bank sells Dave’s land to people we like. I hope the new owners are friendly, as Dave and Ricky were. I hope they will let us swim in the creek.
(Jane Futcher lives near Laytonville.)