Twelve hours after moving the last of his Christmas-tree-sized marijuana plants from his Marin County farm to Harborside’s Monterey County property in order to save them from smoke damage, Peter Pietrangeli had finally closed his eyes in a Scotts Valley hotel room when he got a text about flames approaching his other property in nearby Boulder Creek, in the Santa Cruz mountains.
The Bear Fire was only a quarter of a mile away from his farm, and Pietrangeli knew his 12 trimmers — workers who manicure cannabis buds to optimize their quality — were on the property without cellphone reception. CHP officers blocked the roads to keep people away from the blaze, but he persuaded them to let him up to the farm. As smoke poured in, he got his crew out at about midnight.
“It was quite traumatic to deal with all that,” he says. “Half of them were sleeping; some of them were up trimming. None of them had any idea.”
“On the way out, we came really close to the fire,” recalls a trimmer from Peitrangeli’s farm who requested to remain anonymous. “It was still a shock when we arrived at the hotel; we still didn’t realize what danger we could have been in -- that came a little bit later. It took a while to fully realize what’s really going on.”
He and the other workers stayed in a hotel with Pietrangeli for several days until it was safe to return to the property. “We had no idea if the fire is coming to the farm,” says the trimmer. “All our stuff was there; some people had valuables because there was no time to get them, like passports. It was a scary time.”
Pietrangeli is the founder and CEO of Acme Elixirs, a company that sells cannabis-infused tinctures, edibles, and vape pens throughout dispensaries in California. Though his Boulder Creek property endured substantial smoke damage, he considers himself one of the lucky ones. Growers that he knows in Sonoma County lost entire homes, farms, and greenhouses -- essentially, their entire livelihoods.
With state legalization taking effect next year, the North Bay wildfires “happened, ironically, after several people put down tons of money, millions of dollars, to set up farms and greenhouses in Santa Rosa and Sonoma,” he says.
Because marijuana is still federally illegal, crucial resources available to other kinds of business owners -- such as loans, insurance, and federal disaster relief aid -- are not available to owners of cannabis businesses. Many of the small growers Pietrangeli knows cultivated marijuana in the grey market and were preparing to go legit in time for Proposition 64, the recreational adult use act, to take effect in January.
“Now they’re going to go into next year almost empty-handed and start all over,” he laments. “A lot of these people rely on money from the previous season to make the next season work, so there’s definitely a ripple effect that’s caused a lot of different economic downfalls for people in the cannabis industry.”
That ripple effect extends to the cannabis industry's workforce. Pietrangeli typically employs 30 people across his three properties in Boulder Creek, Lagunitas, and Nevada City during harvest season. Because smoke from the wildfires damaged a substantial portion of his crops, he’s using plants that would have normally been sold as flowers for tinctures and extracts and cutting costs on labor by using trimming machines. His crew of 30 has shrunk down to just 8 people.
“Only three people of our group went back to the farm to Pete,” says the trimmer I spoke with. After about a week, he left to find work elsewhere. He was able to find another trimming job through industry connections, but other trimmers he knows haven’t been so lucky.
“I know a lot of people that are waiting to come to farms, but it’s not so easy right now,” he adds. “I know a few other trimmers who are looking for work and they don’t find a spot and they’re waiting since the fire. A lot of people have been affected.”
Prior to the Northern California wildfires, trimmers’ jobs were already in jeopardy. As I learned talking to trimmers earlier this year, as more product floods the soon-to-be-legal market, the price of trimmers’ labor has decreased. In previous years, temporary workers -- many of them artists from the Bay Area who traveled up north for flexible, short-term gigs -- were paid $250 for every pound of cannabis they trimmed. Now, the average wage is closer to $150 a pound -- and is dropping in the aftermath of the wildfires. At some farms, trimmers are being replaced by machines altogether.
Fortunately, things are not all bad for the cannabis industry. Hezekiah Allen, executive director of the California Growers Association, estimates that only a small fraction of the state’s total marijuana supply was affected by the fires, so there’s still plenty of trimming work available.
"But for the folks relying on these specific farms, they’re in a pretty tough spot,” he adds.
Allen estimates that over 45 farmers lost their crops, their homes, or a combination of both in the wildfires. “While it was a pretty high number of farms that were impacted, it really is a small percentage of the overall farms,” he says. “There are tens of thousands of cannabis farms throughout the north coast.”
Despite those figures, Allen admits that there has been a substantial impact on the workforce. “Because of the seasonal nature of the work, it can be a bit tricky to estimate” how many trimmers have lost their jobs, he says. “But I would guess there are easily several hundred people that are without work at this point.”
That figure may rise as farmers account for smoke damage. While the number of farms that burned to the ground is relatively small, Andrew DeAngelo, the operations manager of Harborside, a dispensary chain with its own farm in the Salinas Valley, estimates that smoke damage may render far more crops unusable, further decreasing the need for trimmers.
“Smoke damage on cannabis is kind of like smoke damage on wine grapes or fresh fruit: It’s really hard to get the campfire smell and taste out of the food or crop,” he says. “We generally don’t put products like that on our shelves -- and certainly not in a legal, regulated market would that be allowed, I assume.”
Like the California Growers Association, which has partnered with several cannabis advocacy groups to set up a wildfire recovery fund, Harborside has held several fundraisers to help colleagues in the cannabis industry make up for their losses, raising over $28,000. There’s still a long way to go to make up for the hundreds of millions of dollars in losses the industry has endured, DeAngelo says.
Still, DeAngelo and others I spoke with remain optimistic for the industry's future. He says this year's harvest was a particularly fruitful one, and he and other industry peers are doing what they can to assist relief efforts. CannaCraft, a brand he works with, for instance, is raising money for an emergency housing fund for growers who lost their homes. DeAngelo characterizes cannabis entrepreneurs as a particularly resilient group of people who are used to overcoming all sorts of challenges, especially since their work was previously conducted in the black market.
“Cannabis people tend to do well in emergencies," he says, "in terms of coming together and sharing resources to get people back on their feet."