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This Is What The Marijuana Industry Really Looks Like

A new photo essay looks into the pot-growing communities of northern California and finds they’re not much different from any other agricultural community.

  • <p><em>Grassland</em> is a new photo series about the lives of marijuana growers in California’s Mendocino, Humboldt, and Sonoma counties.</p>
  • <p>Those three counties are known as the "Emerald Triangle." They produce the bulk of California’s legal weed.</p>
  • The photographer, H. Lee, spent an entire year between 2010 and 2011--from one harvest to the next--following cannabis growers in Sonoma, Mendocino, and Humboldt.
  • <p>H. Lee is, of course, a pseudonym.</p>
  • <p>Says the photographer: "I unexpectedly found myself in a cannabis-growing community thanks to personal connections, not work."</p>
  • <p>"It was a world to which I’d never been exposed--and it was beyond intriguing to me, everything from the people and the process to the farming and a community that was bred from, let’s say, alternative activities."</p>
  • <p>"I am a storyteller, and felt, now more than ever, it’s time for this hidden tale to be told in images, at the very least."</p>
  • 01 /18

    Grassland is a new photo series about the lives of marijuana growers in California’s Mendocino, Humboldt, and Sonoma counties.

  • 02 /18

    Those three counties are known as the "Emerald Triangle." They produce the bulk of California’s legal weed.

  • 03 /18
  • 04 /18

    H. Lee is, of course, a pseudonym.

  • 05 /18

    Says the photographer: "I unexpectedly found myself in a cannabis-growing community thanks to personal connections, not work."

  • 06 /18

    "It was a world to which I’d never been exposed--and it was beyond intriguing to me, everything from the people and the process to the farming and a community that was bred from, let’s say, alternative activities."

  • 07 /18

    "I am a storyteller, and felt, now more than ever, it’s time for this hidden tale to be told in images, at the very least."

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Pot farmers: They’re just like every other small-time farmer. That’s the sense you get from looking at the images in H. Lee’s Grassland, a series of photos depicting everyday life for marijuana growers in California’s so-called "Emerald Triangle"—Mendocino, Humboldt, and Trinity counties, which produce the bulk of marijuana sold legally in the state.

In an email, H. Lee (a pseudonym) tells me how she ended up spending an entire year between 2010 and 2011—from one harvest to the next—following cannabis growers in Sonoma, Mendocino, and Humboldt: "I unexpectedly found myself in a cannabis-growing community thanks to personal connections, not work. It was a world to which I’d never been exposed—and it was beyond intriguing to me, everything from the people and the process to the farming and a community that was bred from, let’s say, alternative activities. I am a storyteller, and felt, now more than ever, it’s time for this hidden tale to be told in images, at the very least."

The conversation about marijuana consumption in the U.S. has bubbled to the forefront in recent months now that it’s legal for adults over 21, not just those with prescriptions, in Washington and Colorado. It’s a contentious topic, but one that’s slowly becoming more accepted in mainstream society. Marijuana growing is another story. Even within the welcoming arms of California’s lax medical marijuana laws, growers are part of a closed-off world—except within the Emerald Triangle, where pot farming keeps the economy going.

An article in Washington Monthly describes the situation:

"In my rural community we have no outside services," one resident of the Humboldt hill country told me recently. "We had to beg to get phone here. I have no broadband service. It’s an hour and a half for the cops to get here. The hospital is a disaster area. The road doesn’t come out our way. We get no county services. Most of our kids don’t go to county schools." Out of 300 families in her community, she said, only five of them don’t grow pot. And like the colony at Jamestown, where leaves of tobacco became the only practical currency, parts of the Triangle have even seen cannabis emerge as a local medium of exchange. The same resident described a recent effort at backwoods revenue collection: "They passed out marijuana plants to people and said, ‘Grow this one for the fire truck. This plant over here is for the school; this plant over here is for the road.’

I once visited a couple running a vegetable farm in Mendocino county; they were surrounded by pot farmers on all sides. And while the couple enjoyed marijuana themselves, they didn’t like being surrounded by secretive, unfriendly growers. H. Lee describes things differently. "I did not get an 'exclusivity’ vibe at all; it’s more about privacy and caution," she says.

The situation is different with big-time growers that are susceptible to federal raids, but among the small-timers, their operations aren’t too exciting—except for the end product, of course. In the end, marijuana farming towns aren’t that different from other insular farming towns.

A reliance on one crop is always risky, and so the question remains about what will happen to these small-time growers if marijuana is fully legalized and large operations supplying weed to major corporations become the norm. They may get squeezed out. But isn’t that the story of agriculture in America?

Check out H. Lee’s photos in the slide show above.

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