After a long day at the office, Seattle architect James Freeman flops down on his couch and happily pops a new container of Black Cherry Cola bud.
Freeman has been smoking since college and is something of a connoisseur. He plucks out a bud and inhales appreciatively. The bud is sticky, dank, and glittering. “Awesome,” he mutters. What Freeman doesn’t notice: a minuscule stem on the upper corner of the flower.
The average consumer won’t notice a flower’s manicure unless it’s loaded with stems, fan-leaves, and seeds. In fact, Freeman has no concept of the tremendous amount of work that goes into his bud—doesn’t realize that an entire multifaceted industry exists simply to ensure that he’s not offended by stray crow’s feet. As Freeman lights up, he’s not imagining the arduous process that begins in the fields with the initial removal of fan leaves and may involve seven or eight steps: bucking plants to manageable stems, hanging stems to cure, storing dried stems in bins, bucking stems to an even smaller size, removing additional fan leaves, removing buds from stems, and carefully manicuring each flower with razor-sharp scissors.
The standards for manicuring buds date back to the darkest days of prohibition, when sky-high prices made each stem worth its weight in gold. Removing every stray leaf and stemlet made sense—especially since a few grams of deadweight might push a charge from a misdemeanor to a felony. To the smugglers, dealers, and consumers who risked their liberty for cannabis, worthless weight was a liability. An atmosphere of fear set the standards that rule the market even today, fifty years later.
This stringency led, of course, to the advent of “harvest season,” when people from all over the world would swarm to the West Coast of the United States to try their hands at trimming. On remote hillsides, tents mushroomed in the autumn air, and the rural peace and quiet were shattered by an influx of migrants. Once again, the outlaw factor shaped convention. Due to the remote locations of illegal outdoor grows and the necessity for secrecy, workers typically lived onsite for months at a time. Trimmers had the power to destroy a grower and were paid handsomely to ensure loyalty and were compensated for the risk. When it came to hiring, “trustworthiness” outweighed conventional standards like reliability or work experience.
Although harvest was a time of celebration, it was viewed with dread in some quarters. Exceptionally long hours, monotonous work, isolation, and close quarters could create a petri dish of drama. For growers, their stress was increased by the high cost of providing food, electricity, and firewood necessary to maintain large crews of workers.
Trim machines promised a cost-effective alternative to the exhausting and faintly ridiculous practice of hand-trimming flower. Early machines were little more than fan blades set against grates and were of questionable efficiency, but eventually, these early “weed whips” evolved into complex contraptions with conveyor systems, exhaust filters, and wet and dry options. The numbers are appealing: high-end machines like Keirton’s Twister Trimmers and GreenBroz 420 promise to “gently process” at least eight pounds an hour.
But trim machines have their critics. “You’re really mangling the most important parts of the flowers,” says Annie Rupp, a licensed cannabis technician based in southern Oregon. Rupp points out that machines require human trimmers for preparation and quality control. “Machines don’t save as much time as people would like to think. They may save some time, but at what expense? You just lost 30 percent of your trichomes. For large-scale production of mid-quality flower…perhaps machines make sense. But for top-shelf artisanal products, it’s essential to have a crew of experienced workers.”
Susan Chicovsky, the CEO of Colorado’s Green Mountain Harvest, is more receptive to mechanization and says that many of their larger clients have excellent machines, but still use her crews to polish the finished product. Chicovsky represents another industry that promises a hassle-free solution to the trim question: Green Mountain Harvest. This trimmer training school provides consulting services, a school for trimmers, and teams of certified professionals that are dispatched to job sites––replete with their own OSHA-certified toolboxes. The team leader trims while also managing personnel and timesheets. Growers pay Green Mountain $17 an hour for each trimmer, and $20 an hour for the manager.
“Green Mountain Harvest does the interviewing, hiring, firing, scheduling, payroll, HR, unemployment and accounting, dealing with W-2s, paying taxes, and paying for workers’ compensation,” Chicovsky explains. “We take care of all this so the client has more leeway to do what they love and not deal with any of that.”
Meanwhile, some growers are taking efficiency into their own hands by hiring professional onsite managers and creating trim spaces that echo office spaces, replete with wall-facing cubicles, ergonomic chairs, and equal and identical lighting stations. To minimize conflict, workers are encouraged to wear ear buds.
These tightly managed crews bring a level of professionalism that may be liberating to growers who have suffered through managing their own trim crews. Gone are the days of troubleshooting lighting problems, settling arguments over playlists and podcasts, and attempting to feed a crew with a range of dietary restrictions that would give an A-list Hollywood cast a run for its money.
Perhaps the most efficient solution to the trim question can be found in today’s marketplace trends: perfect flowers are overshadowed by the demand for oils, edibles, and other products that no longer require a “fine trim.” But despite these changes, we’re confident that the demand for flower will never totally disappear, and that scissors will continue to sing on rural hillsides.
DOING OLD SCHOOL RIGHT
All grumbling aside, harvesting can be fun. Trim machines may be efficient, but there’s still something to be said for an old-fashioned trim crew. Many crews feel like family, and fall can be a time for reunion and celebration, interspersed with marathon manicure sessions.
In order to sustain the lovefest, you’ll want to organize your crew and workspace to eliminate the pitfalls that can make your harvest slow and stressful. The trick here is to minimize drama by building a healthful sense of community, while maximizing efficiency by preventing burnout.
As the cannabis industry goes legal, you have a wider pool of people from which to hire. It’s time to get picky. When hiring new workers, give yourself an out. Invite new workers for a specific limited time, but mention you may end up needing them for longer. This way you can screen workers and make sure they’re a good fit for your crew. Speaking of which—when considering if a worker is right for you, don’t prioritize work ethic over crew dynamics. A good candidate is efficient and drama free.
SCHEDULING AND FEEDING:
To keep the situation low-key, it’s essential to make your trimmers feel like respected and valued members of a team. Start with food. Feed your trimmers at least two square meals a day. You’ll need to cook or hire a cook, but it’s worth every dollar. To establish a daily routine and build a sense of community, make it known that everyone eats together at the same time. By giving your crew humane and regular breaks for meals, you’ll prevent the potential for hangry bickering, while sending the message that you value your employees.
Trimmers have a tendency to stay up all night when the ganja is good. This can seem like a great way to move through the product, but it often leads to burnout, inferior quality flower, and resentment from the workers who can’t take the long hours and feel that they’re missing out on the money. You may want to consider setting regular hours—or at least putting some cap on late-night trimming.
If you do allow late-night trimming, limit late-night sessions to payment by the ganja pound—not by the hour. This way you won’t be taking a hit for the inevitable late-night slowdown (this is particularly valid if your crew breaks out the beer and the bong with dinner).
ORGANIZING THE TRIM ROOM:
To minimize conflict and maximize efficiency, make sure that every spot in your trim room has a decent chair and a good light. Ask what types of scissors your trimmers like and buy a sufficient quantity for the entire season. Before the crew arrives, set up trash cans, recycling, containers for finished product, bins for fan leaves and trim, trays, turkey bags, paper bags, screens, rags, oil, and jars of your preferred products for cleaning scissors and hands. Prepare for extremes in weather—if your crew is working in a barn or makeshift space, provide both fans and heaters.
A happy trimmer is not going to cut corners, steal, or complain. So let your crew know that you appreciate their work. Compliment good technique. Dispense rewards when your crew meets a deadline or gets through a particularly larfy series of bins. And, most importantly—if you’re stressed––don’t dump that on your crew. Your worries are best confined to conversations with your partner or crew manager.
Like plants, trimmers flourish with a regular feeding schedule, quality inputs, positive energy, and careful planning. Happy harvest!