Jim Hemig: Have you ever been black boxed? | TheUnion.com

Jim Hemig: Have you ever been black boxed?

Cannabis grow in western Nevada County.
Jim Hemig/jhemig@theunion.com |

“Do you want to be black boxed?” a friend asked about a month ago over casual coffee.

Black boxed? I had no idea what that meant. But as someone that is always game to learn something new, I said, “Sure, what is it?”

Apparently, getting “black boxed” is covering your eyes and ears (or all of your senses) to prevent you from being able to identify a location during a drive somewhere.

In this case, that meant driving to an active marijuana grow site.

… I had this image of driving out with a bag over my head, hands tied behind my back only to find tall barbwire fences and mean-looking guys with beards and tattoos pointing machine guns at me when the bag is lifted.

After learning about this description and the invitation to drive to a local grow to see a pot harvest firsthand, I couldn’t say no. But I did begin to wonder about my safety.

Maybe I watch too much TV or read too many drug-related news stories, but I had this image of driving out with a bag over my head, hands tied behind my back only to find tall barbwire fences and mean-looking guys with beards and tattoos pointing machine guns at me when the bag is lifted.

Still, I couldn’t pass up this opportunity.

Harvesting pot is like any agricultural harvest. When it’s time, it’s time. I didn’t know when; I just had a general idea.

“Could be any time over the next few weeks to a month,” my friend said, “just be ready to go when I call you.”

I remember this routine well. Last year I offered to help pick grapes at a local winery. The same thing was said then; “When it’s time to pick, we’ll call you, be ready.”

There is no checking my calendar and scheduling in advance. When it’s time to harvest, you need to move.

So, last week the phone rang. “It’s time to go,” I heard. (You’ll notice I’m leaving out names and locations as part of the agreement to visit the grow site.)

The drive with my friend was short and did not end with machine guns. Instead, I found a normal-looking home with family, dogs, chickens, a traditional garden and 36 giant pot plants in the backyard.

Meeting the owner/grower was an interesting experience. He was a younger guy, maybe in his 30s, who has lived here his whole life. He recognized me from community events that involved his children.

We toured the backyard grow site where a half dozen or so younger folks were actively trimming, gathering and drying the best commercial parts of the cannabis plant. And these were big plants. Most were over 10 feet tall with a street value of about $6,000. Run the numbers and he has over $200,000 in product. However, some looked like healthy plants and others had issues. My tour guide explained that growing is difficult; some plants grow stunted while others can develop mildew.

I received a crash course in growing a healthy cash crop — from sun, water, plant spacing, fertilizing and maintaining an organic garden; all of which works together to produce the highest yield come harvest time.

I found the growing advice interesting, but what I really wanted to know is how he deals with the fact that this is an illegal operation. The similarities between a wine grape harvest and a cannabis harvest were noticeable, yet the cloud of secrecy and worry about getting busted hung over this operation. When I asked my young pot farmer guide how he operates to stay in business and out of trouble, he had nothing short of a well thought-out plan.

He was willing to share his plan with me, or maybe it’s more of a philosophy, that if he operates under the radar just enough his business will not draw the attention of the sheriff’s office.

He mentioned that he only hires local people he knows because hiring local allows a trust factor to develop and keeps the money he pays in the local economy. This was important to the young grower. He also never grows more than 36 plants, and said he has medicinal prescriptions to match his grow. He believes more plants get the attention of neighbors and plane flyovers. This local resident also gives money to schools and operates a local business to contribute taxes.

He endeavors to be a responsible local grower, but when I asked how many others growing marijuana in our area fit this criteria, he said maybe 10 percent. He said the remaining 90 percent grow more, hire people they don’t know, often treat neighbors poorly and are the ones that we read about in the pages of The Union getting busted.

I thought this young man’s plan sounded too simple — so simple I wondered why everyone wouldn’t do this to stay off the radar. It appears that the majority don’t seem to have the same common sense and likely end up giving our community their “downside only” perspective of our local pot growing culture and impact.

My other burning question for my new friend was what happens if cannabis becomes recreationally legal in the state of California in 2016? He also has a plan for this. He is perfecting his growing technique to minimize a bad harvest, as well as saving money to purchase possible permits to grow as a business. He referred to his post-legalization marijuana enterprise like a “micro brewery,” specializing in unique and well-grown strains that would be marketable throughout the region. While I commend him for his interest to convert to a more reputable business, something tells me it won’t be that easy. But I admire the initiative.

The moral of the story is that this guy tries to be a responsible person in an industry full of less than responsible people; people who bring elements of crime and trouble into our community. Whether pot is legal or not, I have a feeling we’re stuck with this in and around our small towns. I’d rather have this guy growing than the other rough guys I see described in the pages of The Union. And now I can say I have been black boxed.

To contact Publisher Jim Hemig, email jhemig@theunion.com or call 530-477-4299.

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