Editor's note: This is an expert from the story "The Perils of Pot Farming: A Season on America's Least Chill Weed Farm" from this month's issue of Men's Journal.
Before I started as Eric's full-time employee, I thought a weed farm was kind of like a Christmas tree farm. You plant seeds, water them, let nature do its thing, and when it's time and they're big enough, you chop them down and sell them, make your money and everyone has a merry Christmas. The end.
It's not. "All it takes is one bad run," Nelson says, "and you lose your entire ass in this game." There's an endless list of things that can go wrong. The wind can wipe out your crop; the plants can all stress out and hermaphrodite on you; you can lose them to gophers, deer, caterpillars, spider mites, broad mites, bud rot, mold, powdery mildew, thieves, or a bad crew; if it's too dark in the greenhouses, you can end up with larfy-ass buds, which means they're too fluffy; and you can overfertilize and burn your plants chemically. Eric says his crop is totally organic, but he guesses that most growers use chemicals on their plants at least once during the grow.
Nelson inspects the plants by feeling them with his hands. He says he can tell they're “happy."
"They're perky," he says. "See how they're lush and green and full of moisture? They're not distressed. If they're sad, they're droopy. Probably dehydrated. If they're unhappy, they don't smell like anything and start to rot."
Nelson grabs a bud from another plant and has me take a whiff. It smells like weed. They all do. I can't really tell if they're happy or not, but they look and smell night-and-day different from the weed we smoked in high school. That shit was brown and full of seeds, and it was sold out of plastic Baggies, usually by a classmate who went to school primarily to sell weed.
Nelson pulls out his phone and says we should document our working together on the farm. "Something to show the kids someday," he says.
He sends it to me, but I'm not allowed to post it anywhere that could tag the location. "Once you start bragging and showing the world your shit," he says, "that's how you get jacked."
The plants exceed the height of the fence, so they're visible to anyone driving along the road a couple of hundred yards away. The first day of work, Nelson and I use plastic zip ties to attach bamboo extensions to the fence. They're the same type of plastic zip ties we used in Iraq as handcuffs, and the green plastic netting over the chain-link fence looks to be of the same material as the sandbags we used to cover the heads of the handcuffed prisoners.
It's odd to think that I went from being a machine gunner in the infantry to getting a master's degree to working on a weed farm. But I have child support and a seven-year-old I have custody of every weekend. I've just turned 40. Where did I go wrong? My ex-wives probably have their theories, but I don't know.
There is another worker with us in the garden. Alicia is a Latina from Southern California. She wears running shorts and headphones and walks around with a stopwatch, watering all the plants. Nelson flirts with her constantly, calling her “Beautiful," “Sweetie," telling her how extremely good she looks. “So when are we going to hook up?" he asks her.
“Sorry, Nelson, I'm not into Mexi-can'ts."
Inside are a few trimmers who manicure the buds with pruning snips: a couple of guys, sporting sandals and man buns, and a slender girl in short shorts, with a blonde bob, who has that slight stony thing about her — Nelson noticed her when we first pulled up to the house. "I love her," Nelson said, which is exactly what he says about every woman. Whenever Nelson gets bored with hitting on Alicia, he goes inside to flirt with the blonde. All day we work while Nelson goes from one girl to another.
At one point, it's just me and Eric in the garden. With his hands folded across his chest, he asks my advice. "You think I should get a shotgun or an assault rifle?"
Eric tried to buy a gun recently but failed the background check. Nelson told me that Eric had attacked one of his employees with his bare hands. The two went to a bar, and the guy started bragging to the female bartender about how much weed they were growing. Eric told him to shut the fuck up, but the guy just continued and bam. Eric beat the fuck out of him and got arrested, but the charges were dropped.
I shake my head and tell Eric he doesn't need a gun. “I mean, what are you going to do? Shoot and kill somebody over weed?"
He just looks at me.
My first week of work, Nelson goes back to the city, and Eric gives me a little tour of his “nest egg." All these plants are his eggs, and they're all in one basket. “Once Prop 64 passes," he says, “everything is going to be regulated and no one will be able to afford to grow. None of this is going to be profitable. That's why I'm cashing out. This is my last harvest. After this I'm done."
His plan is to travel, maybe get a house in the mountains, and bury whatever is left. He points out a trailer from the '70s parked next to the house. Several years ago he gave up his job, bought the trailer, lived in the woods, and grew weed. Just him and his mutt. He invested all his money into that grow, and every year since, he's expanded until he has what he has now, a basket with all his nest eggs. The three main things he's worried about are being robbed, broad mites, and some freak-of-nature storm coming through.
He boasts that his weed sells for $1,400 a pound – bare minimum – and with some strains he can pull in as much as $2,300. The first year he grew, weed was selling for $4,200 a pound. Every year the price drops while operational costs for growing that same pound remain the same or increase slightly. Some predict that once Prop 64 passes, the price will drop dramatically.
"For the independent grower, the end is here and now."
"You don't talk much, do you?" Eric asks me while we walk through his garden.
"Not really," I say. "I just follow orders, I guess. Keep my mouth shut."
He says he likes that about me. Eric instructs me on how to water his plants properly with nutrients. I'm supposed to use the stopwatch to make sure that each and every plant gets two and a half minutes of feed. It's OK to go a little over, but just a little, because I'd be wasting hundreds of gallons of nutrients that Eric paid for.
Later, when he comes back to check up on me, I tell him everything's going well, but that's a lie. In truth, I get a little lost in the garden because the plants all look the same. Or I forget to press the stopwatch, and I might have even watered a couple of plants twice or three times, but I couldn't tell because the heat instantly dried the soil. But I tell him that things are going great, how I got this.
Eric doesn't like to hire potheads or commune types. They're the last kinds of workers he wants. He can see them doing the math in their heads when they look at his crop. They'll think he's loaded and will want a piece of it.
"I don't get it," he says. "You go down to Walmart, and they have millions of dollars of inventory. They pay their employees shit and they're all happy! They don't look around and say, 'Hey, wait a minute here, they're making millions. I should be getting paid a hell of a lot more!' But these fuckers, these stoners and hippies, they come here, they see my shit, and they're like, 'Oh, I deserve more of this,' and it's like, 'Fuck you!' What they don't see are the years of fucking bullshit I had to go through to get here, all the thousands and thousands of dollars I have to spend! Do you know how much I spent on soil alone? I spent $70,000! For dirt! That's more than what most Americans make in a year! And I pay that! See all the bamboo sticks? How many do you think I have? Thousands. And guess what. Those are several dollars a pop."
And unlike Walmart, which has hundreds of employees per store, here it's mostly just him. He's in charge of opening up shop and making sure the lights are on, the employees are doing their jobs, and the plants are watered correctly. "I'm in charge of everything, all the way down to how many coffee filters I need to order. I'm in charge of all of it! Me!"
My first week is easy. Every night I pass out in the trailer and wake up at around 8 a.m. A breakfast of organic eggs, sausage, and Tater Tots is made, along with a pot of coffee. In the living room hangs a whiteboard with a list of tasks for the day. On some days, Eric writes messages commending employees for their hard work, or some motivational quote. Other days, he writes angry messages: "Don't fucking wake me up!!!" Over breakfast, Eric typically briefs Alicia and me on what needs to be done that day, and then we execute the orders. One morning before breakfast, I head into the garden. Which is where I notice something alarming about Eric.
He talks to himself.
I'll be working when I hear Eric's voice coming from somewhere. "Two thousand, 4,000, fuck . . . one, two, 55, 13, goddammit, and three dozen fucking 40 . . . I need 12 more, three of those and nine of . . . Shit! Shit! Shit! Fucking! Fuck!"
And then there's the murder talk.
"I swear to God I'll kill their whole fucking family!!! Each and every fucking one of them! Stab them, rip their fucking hearts out, and bury them!!!"
One morning, as we drive to the dump, Eric is extolling the virtues of a gluten-free diet when he suddenly asks if I ever get thoughts in my head of killing people.
"Um . . . no, not really."
A part of me wants to fuck with him and say, "Well, yeah, but only when I'm wasted," just to see where it'll go, but I tell him no. Never. Ever.