Special report: The secret life of a marijuana farmer | TheUnion.com

Special report: The secret life of a marijuana farmer

Like other marijuana growers in Nevada County, a farmer named Joe is harvesting.

He’s been growing pot for 30 years, but as Californians start voting on Proposition 19, Joe is thinking this could be one of his last years.

The measure would legalize cultivation, possession and sale of small amounts of marijuana for recreational use among residents 21 years old and older.

Joe – who asked to use only his first name – has seen the boom years when he sold for nearly six grand a pound. But marijuana, in the end, is like other agricultural products, and when the supply goes up, the price goes down.

Lately, he’s fetching less than two grand, and if the measure passes, nearly anyone will be able to grow their own.

Before he bails, though, he invited The Union readers to a glimpse of his life.

Joe started growing pot in 1980 and has always run what he calls a “guerrilla” operation, concealed among the pines. Joe won’t build a drying shed, instead hanging his harvested buds from scattered trees.

His garden has been a “very well-kept secret,” he said.

Joe has had several partners over the years. “I tried it alone and found how hard it was.”

Before Prop. 215, he would plant in tubs that were hidden in the manzanita bushes.

Over-flights by helicopters looking for grows can keep growers in a constant state of paranoia.

“I’ve been watching helicopters for years, as you can imagine,” he said.

One year, after Joe became convinced his garden had been spotted, he went out in the middle of the night to harvest before he got busted.

“I forgot to bring flashlights, but I had five gallons of gas and a lighter,” he laughed.

After he built a bonfire, he cut all the marijuana down and hauled it through Nevada City in a two-ton truck to a safe hiding place, he said.

On another occasion, he hired 12 guys and seven U-Haul trucks and moved his entire garden 6 miles down the road to somebody else’s land.

“We knew we’d been spotted,” he said. “It was a judgment call.”

Joe’s wife never did get used to the fear, and eventually decided she wanted no part of the enterprise.

Even though Joe’s garden is well-concealed, he’s been ripped off at least three times, he said.

He’s had one armed confrontation, with a teen who was ripping off his neighbor’s garden.

“He had a club, I had a rifle,” Joe said. “I won. It came down to this … we put our weapons down and backed off from each other. I was going to shoot him in the leg. I’m not a killer.”

Joe has also been arrested once, serving 180 days in jail.

“For the longest time, there were very few people doing it,” Joe said.

Profit drove the influx of growers, Joe said. In 1980, he was getting about $1,600 a pound for marijuana; by 1992, the price had jumped to $5,200 a pound.

“Things started to change with Proposition 215,” he said. “Most people do what (Sheriff) Keith Royal has described as hiding behind medical marijuana.”

Most commercial growers assemble a collection of prescriptions, often trading a half-pound to a pound of processed marijuana for each scrip.

According to Joe, one clinic in the county writes about 7,000 medical marijuana recommendations a year.

“With Prop. 215, as long as you’re not too outrageous, there haven’t been that many busts in the last five years,” Joe said. “By 1998, growing was still scary, but it got mainstreamed.”

One negative result? Growing became “very attractive,” he said. “The market totally flooded.”

Last year, with about 24 pounds of marijuana he was having a hard time getting rid of, Joe ended up selling some for as little as $1,800 a pound.

Because he “guerilla” farms, Joe only harvests a half-pound to a pound from each plant, as opposed to an estimated 5 to 6 pounds that could be gleaned from a plant growing in full sun.

“I may be the last guy left doing it this way,” he said.

Last year, he only grew about 50 plants, but the weather was good, so he harvested about 50 pounds. This year, he’s hoping for about 30 to 40 pounds from his 70 plants, because the weather didn’t cooperate.

His costs are fairly low, he said – about $5,000 for soil and amendments. Before the downturn last year, he was getting about $3,000 a pound and grossing about $150,000.

Most of what Joe grows are local clones, although he did grow two Afghani plants raised from seed purchased in Amsterdam.

“None of this soil is native,” he said, showing off a neat series of raised beds and a camouflage-splotched tub. “It was all brought in by wheelbarrow. Most people have dump trucks of soil brought in.”

From the perspective of 30 years’ experience, Joe sees the entire economy of Nevada County imploding if Proposition 19 passes.

“The Ridge will become very, very depressed,” he said. “There will be no way to make a living.”

Joe is burned out on the amount of work and declining prices he’s been facing.

“I’m done,” he said. “I’ve been looking at getting a reverse mortgage .. I might grow one more year. It’s not as if there’s an alternative to growing (for a lot of people).”

The cash flow is already drying up for many growers, he said.

“I know a couple who bought a place up here in the Ridge, when prices were inflated,” Joe said. “They’ve been growing, but this last year, I took 10 pounds from (them) and they probably had another 15 … They’ve been having trouble making their mortgage. They’re leaving.

“Now, you can’t make any money growing pot.”

To contact Staff Writer Liz Kellar, e-mail lkellar@theunion.com or call (530) 477-4229.

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