In a remote valley of Northern California’s Sierra Nevada mountain range, at an altitude of around 4000 feet, my friend Greg had a Christmas tree and marijuana farm.
Having grown up in the region, he’d carefully selected the valley and the farm’s location after hiking a good chunk of the mountain range since he was old enough to walk, and further exploring the region on foot as an adult when he was a seasonal poison sprayer for the US Forest Service.
He knew those mountains and their foothills, rivers, creeks and valleys like he knew the top of his foot.
The valley he chose for his outdoor marijuana farm is oriented east to west and has a gently graded south-facing, almost-treeless slope that gets at least seven hours of sun per day whenever the sun is up.
It also has water seeps that keep the soil from being too desert-like; rain and snowmelt from far up the slope and on the mountaintop gravitate to the lower slope where Greg set up his Christmas tree farm. This orientation helped to keep the soil moist.
And he had irrigation water nearby, courtesy of a narrow stream running at the bottom of the valley year-round, except when it intermittently froze over in winter.
This valley was almost impossible to reach on foot or by vehicle, unless you knew it was there. It dead-ended into a protected wilderness area and was partially bounded by steep, craggy, unstable slopes that few people would be crazy enough to trek on.
The first two years of the 5-and-a-half-acre farm were grindingly hard work. I helped Greg clear that land. He despised internal combustion machines — the noise, pollution, cost and oily nastiness — so we cleared with axes, shovels, and sometimes our bare hands.
We’d clear the farm section by section, then prep the soil with natural enriching amendments and put in Douglas fir and white fir seedlings. It takes 6–8 years for seedlings to grow into trees people will buy, so Greg wanted to get the trees started as soon as possible.
While other Christmas-tree growers plant really dense, sometimes as much as 1500 trees per acre, Greg had a different program in mind and planted way less density than that.
The reason was that he had a companion crop: marijuana.
Greg had grown marijuana outdoors in the mountains since he was 22. He knew where and when the Campaign Against Marijuana Planting (C.A.M.P.) helicopters flew. He knew most of the guys who worked the fire crews and the Forest Service crews, the guys who sometimes stumble onto outdoor marijuana gardens and either report them to law enforcement or wait until harvest time and rip off the plants.
He knew that the little valley he selected was protected by natural features, including unpredictable updrafts and obscured aerial line of sight, making it unlikely that C.A.M.P. helicopters would ever fly over it.
When Greg grew guerilla style before he started the Christmas-tree farm, he planted minimalist outdoor cannabis plants of no more than a couple dozen in total, located where at least some direct sun would hit, but often sheltered by trees, dense undergrowth or a rocky outcrop. These features offered partial security to block visual access for ground intruders and helicopter surveillance.
He decided to do the Christmas-tree farm in part so he had a cover story for his cannabis-growing income. He made sure to choose strains that naturally grow into a Christmas tree shape, and left them untopped so they retained that shape.
And even though marijuana leaves don’t look anything like fir needles, at least the structural profile of a mature outdoor marijuana plant was similar to that of a mature Christmas tree. Not only that, but as the fir trees came into maturity, they emitted a wonderful scent that helped to mask marijuana odor.
The Hard Work Of Outdoor Marijuana Growing
Unfortunately, Christmas trees and outdoor marijuana plants attract spider mites and aphids. Both of those pests are terribly destructive, especially if the weather and climate are ideal for their growth and proliferation.
Greg refused to use chemical poisons on his outdoor marijuana crops and had a combination of strategies to combat the pests. He selected locally bred marijuana strains known to repel garden invaders. The strains were bizarre, but potent and hardy hybrids combining Afghanica and sativa with piney, turpentine, lemon terpenoids known to ward off insects.
He had a powerful foliar sprayer and every couple of days Greg sprayed insecticidal soap mixed with cayenne pepper, B-52 and Rhino Skin onto his crops. Rhino Skin is potassium silicate, which is an armoring compound that helps plants resist insects that suck on plants, while also providing potassium as a plant nutrient. B-52 contains vitamin B complex to help marijuana resist the stress inherent in outdoor growing.
Greg foliar sprayed into mid-bloom phase, something you wouldn’t do when growing indoors because the materials would tend to stick to and in the buds and ruin their taste, creating safety issues when combusted. Growing outdoors, when you stop applying foliar spray early enough in bloom phase, you get late summer or autumn rains that wash those substances off the buds.
Foliar spraying doesn’t always protect outdoor marijuana plants. Greg lost a percentage of each crop to pests, and there were years when he lost much of his outdoor marijuana crop to drought, even a rock slide one year.
But on average he pulled in 65–105 pounds of dried and cured buds per year, with an average return of $1300 per pound, depending on the market price that year, the buds’ appearance and potency, and whether his crop was sold to concentrates processors or to dispensaries that retailed whole-flower marijuana.
He used his bud profits to subsidize the Christmas-tree farm and save up enough money to buy the land he was using. As we worked the soil, Greg told me of his dreams for the future. He hoped to build a small cabin, bring in a windmill and solar energy system with a storage battery, and retire to enjoy his golden years in the mountains he loved.
Christmas trees are hard work, in some ways harder than growing cannabis and they take a lot longer to be ready for market. He couldn’t do what a lot of Christmas tree farmers do, which is to let customers into the farm to pick and cut their own trees, or to pick them up from the farm. Even though his cannabis plants were long harvested by the time the festive season rolled around, Greg didn’t want anybody out at his farm. He had to cut the trees carefully, pile them into a truck, and go vend them himself.
He always made much more on the marijuana than he did on Christmas trees. He made enough to buy the land outright, and was beginning to price homesteading and alternative energy supplies.
When we harvested his outdoor crop, which we did by ourselves because he didn’t trust anybody other than me, Greg was a true perfectionist.
We partially manicured the plant, cutting buds off and tossing them into large plastic bins based on whether they were flawless, acceptable, or too inferior to sell as whole flowers.
Greg’s biggest security risk came after every harvest, when we had to transport the buds to a detached garage on my property.
It wasn’t a garage for cars or storing junk.
Nope, it was customized specially for storing buds, with its own air conditioning and bud-drying racks. The garage also housed a big grow tent I used to start the clones or seedlings Greg transplanted into the ground at the start of each outdoor marijuana season.
He didn’t want to dry cannabis on-site. By the time he harvested, the nights were too cold, and it was likely raining, even snowing. Drying and curing had to be done indoors under controlled conditions, and I was glad to provide a place for his needs. He rewarded me with big piles of outdoor marijuana for my own use.
Generosity & Loss
After drying and curing, Greg set aside several pounds of low-grade buds to be handed out as charity. He didn’t want to be publicly associated with cannabis in any way, so he had me do all his wholesaling and retailing for him. He also instructed me to donate a couple of kilos or more per season to two cannabis cooperatives that give the cannabis to impoverished people who needed medical marijuana for severe conditions but who couldn’t afford it.
My brokers, dispensary people and cannabis industry contacts always thought I’d grown the buds myself; they chided me for giving marijuana away. They just couldn’t understand why anyone would give anything so precious for free, pointing out that even inferior buds sullied by pests, debris, dust or mold could turn a profit by being washed and made into concentrates. One critic calculated that I was giving away as much as $6000 in weed.
When I told Greg that people were decrying his pot philanthropy, he said, “You know how screwed up this country is when people try to talk you out of being generous. People have become selfish and cold-hearted.”
I’ll always remember Greg as being generous in other ways, too. He figured that the animals, plants and trees that were on the land before he bought it had a right to live there, too. He never used poisons, traps or guns to catch or kill deer, rabbits and other animals that eat cannabis plants, as other growers do. He used fencing and spent almost all his time at the farm so he could humanely scare animals away.
He used some of his profits and time to research endangered or threatened trees and plants that were native to his valley, and went to great expense to perform environmental restoration.
I wish I could say that Greg lived happily ever after, growing his little forest and his marijuana plants that were the size of small trees in his happy valley.
But his life was cut short at age 63. It happened like this…
He told me he had a feeling of being watched, and sometimes heard noises from way up the hillside. He was waiting on the darkness of a new moon before going to investigate.
I visited him every four or five days. When I went for my next visit, he wasn’t around. I shouted for him. No answer. I figured he was out hiking.
I came back two days later. Still no Greg. This happened a month after harvest and before the first snow. I couldn’t find his tracks. He’d have told me if he was going away.
He’d instructed me that if he was ever gone for more than five days, I was to sanitize the farm site by removing all traces of cannabis growing, wait a few more days, then call the sheriff. And that’s what I did.
It took them a weekend with dogs, ground crews and helicopters to find his body. He’d fallen, or been thrown, off high ground, and landed on a ledge. The coroner said he’d died instantly. That made me feel good for him — the one merciful fact in an otherwise horrible happenstance, that he didn’t lie there injured and alone, dying of injuries, hunger or thirst.
He’d never had children, and the only woman he’d ever loved had left him years before. I found out later he willed his land to a wilderness conservancy.
I go up there sometimes, up to that lonely valley haunted by ghosts. The fir trees are feral now, real beauties, some of them with blue-silver needles, the tall, stately kind of Christmas tree you see in Times Square or at the White House.
If I spend more than a few minutes there, I get teary-eyed and angry at the impermanence and unfairness of life.
Every time Christmas rolls around, I remember my friend Greg, a rare and gentle soul. Somewhere there are indigent people who are no longer getting free medical marijuana from the Sierra Nevada.