I thought I overheard the following discussion the other day outside the Ukiah Visitors Center. A man in a tailored suit who was driving a late model BMW was discussing his line of work with a friend of his who was in dirty work clothes and drove a white pickup. Let's call them Mr. Beemer and Mr. Truck. They both said were local growers.
Mr. Truck said his industry had struggled through some lean times lately, but was now pumping $45 billion a year into the state's economy, up significantly from four years ago.
"How do you calculate that?" asked Mr. Beemer.
"Oh, we include visitors, and every secondary business we can think of," replied Mr. Truck.
"Big deal," said Mr. Beemer. "If you want to include all the assumed secondary benefits, my industry is pumping at least $60 billion into the state's economy. Probably more."
Mr. Truck said his industry's retail value had grown by nearly 40 percent from 1998 to 2002. "Despite the challenges over the last few years, our industry has seen tremendous growth. We've got our own high paid experts who can prove it."
"I'll go you one better," said Mr. Beemer. "We base our estimates on official government statistics."
Mr. Truck argued that his industry employed over 200,000 people, paid $7.6 billion in wages, $1.9 billion in state taxes, and $3.7 billion in local and federal taxes.
Mr. Beemer wasn't impressed. "We don't know how many people we actually employ, because a lot of them are off the books. But our industry is the number one industry in at least ten counties in the state. We don't pay any taxes, but we donate a lot of money and product to the local economy. And that's not counting the people who use it as barter as if it was money."
Mr. Truck agreed that a lot of his industry's employees were off the books too. Then he described the problems his industry has faced in the last few years. "Prices have gone up and down, the weather can be bad, foreign competition is tough."
Mr. Beemer replied, "Yeah. Us too. The imported stuff is better and cheaper. And the government's on our back all the time."
"Fortunately, the government pretty much leaves us alone," said Mr. Truck. "We can grow wherever we want, get as much water as we can pump, use as many chemicals as we want -- all we have to do is tell them we did it, and they seldom check."
"Now there's where we're quite different," said Mr. Beemer. "We have to grow in remote areas where water is hard to come by and government agents check us all the time."
Mr. Beemer pondered for a while, then asked, "How much do you pay your workers?"
"Oh, close to minimum wage," replied Mr. Truck. "Many of them are not legal, but we don't care. So far we've been lucky and there hasn't been much noise about unions. Besides, most of the money in our business is made by the middle-men. The retail price is sometimes as much as ten times the cost of production. In fact, some of our growers have lost money while the industry as a whole has gotten better."
"Oh, our mark-up is much more than that," said Mr. Beemer. "Our stuff grows like weeds. All you've got to do is plant it, water it, prune it, package it; give it a fancy name and find a buyer who'll pay top price."
"Yes," said Mr. Truck. "That's a lot like us. But we keep our costs down by laying off most of our workers and letting them draw welfare during the off-season. That saves us quite a bit."
"We pay at least $15 an hour for our processing workers, but only a few weeks a year," said Mr. Beemer, "so they don't talk about unions much either. And our field workers usually get paid in product -- which can amount to quite a bit if they can sell it retail. Most of them end up being paid quite well. But we don't have to pay them any actual money."
"We've lost some growers in the last few years," added Mr. Truck. "Some of them quit the business when the price dropped. Too bad, too. But that's the breaks."
"You're right," said Mr. Beemer. "Ours is a tough business as well. We lose people all the time. But that's the risk you take. Besides, if there was no risk the price would come down and a lot of the rest of us would be out of business."
"Do you have any problems with law enforcement," Mr. Truck asked, adding, "We can't sell our product to just anyone. Sometimes they run stings."
"Oh yeah," replied Mr. Beemer. "We've lost a few people who tried to sell it illegally. But there are lots more people available to replace them. And like I said, it helps keep the price up."
"The trouble is," grumbled Mr. Truck, "a lot of people think our product is just a high priced drug and that our consumers are addicts."
"Same with us," said Mr. Beemer. "But we always point out that we're providing a health-supporting product. A lot of people consider our product to be medicine."
"Yeah. Our product has health benefits too," said Mr. Truck. "It's good for your heart and who knows what else."
Mr. Truck became philosophical. "I remember way back when Mendocino County was a resource county and dependent mostly on fishing, a big salmon industry, a big crab industry, and logging -- things people could eat or build with. They were number one for decades. But we've lost all that. Most of the big timber is gone, the fishing is pretty limited and regulated. So even with all the problems we're about all this county has left."
"Yep," said Mr. Beemer. "You and me, bud. High priced intoxicants. That's the best business to be in around here these days."
* * *
Well, that’s how I remember the conversation, anyway. On the other hand, maybe I’m getting old and forgetful.