LAYTONVILLE, CALIF. — In the mountains of Mendocino County, a middle-aged couple stroll into the cool morning air to plant the year's crop. Andrew grabs a shovel and begins to dig up rich black garden beds while Anna waters the seedlings, beginning a hallowed annual ritual here in marijuana's Emerald Triangle.
In the past, planting day was a time of great expectations, maybe for a vacation in Hawaii or Mexico during the rainy months or a new motor home to make deliveries around the country.
But this year, Andrew and Anna are hoping only that their 50 or so marijuana plants will cover the bills. Since the mid-1990s, the price of outdoor-grown marijuana has plummeted from more than $5,000 a pound to less than $2,000, and even as low as $800.
Battered by competition from indoor cultivators around the state and industrial-size operations that have invaded the North Coast counties, many of the small-time pot farmers who created the Emerald Triangle fear that their way of life of the last 40 years is coming to an end.
Their once-quiet communities, with their back-to-nature ethos, are being overrun by outsiders carving massive farms out of the forest. Robberies are commonplace now, and the mountains reverberate with the sounds of chain saws and heavy equipment.
"Every night we hear helicopters now," Anna said. "It's people moving big greenhouses and generators into the mountains."
Andrew, 56, and Anna, 52, who agreed to be interviewed only if they would be identified by their middle names, live in a rambling house down a trail through tanoaks and Douglas firs. Their electricity comes from a windmill and solar panels, their water from a spring. They cook on a wood stove and use an outhouse with a composting toilet to conserve water for their crop.
Though they are not complete back-to-the-landers — they have a nice car, satellite TV and Internet access — they keep their gardens relatively small, tucked in the trees throughout their property.
Among their plants, they post their own medical marijuana cards so that if they're raided, it looks as though they're growing under the aegis of state law. But because dispensaries generally prefer the more potent weed grown indoors, they still sell mostly to the black market, where mom-and-pop growers now struggle to compete.
"These big commercial growers have really ruined our business," Anna said.
Until recently, life in the hills of Mendocino and Humboldt counties had changed little in the decades since hippies from the Bay Area began homesteading here. The pioneers initially grew marijuana for themselves and to make a little money.
Then in the 1980s, cultivation of high-grade seedless marijuana opened the possibility for big money as it brought a higher premium. Many of the farmers cashed in. But many remained small and discreet to avoid attracting the attention of state and federal agents.
They raised their families where they cultivated. They drove beat-up Subarus and small Toyota pickups, pumped their water from wells and chopped their own firewood.
The mountain hamlets operated like breakaway states. Marijuana farmers paid for community centers, fire departments, road maintenance and elementary schools.
Even today, small cannabis-funded volunteer fire stations and primary schools are scattered throughout the ranges. And the local radio station, KMUD, announces the sheriff's deputies' movements as part of its public service mandate.
But the liberalization of marijuana laws in the last decade upended the status quo.
From Oakland to the Inland Empire, people began cultivating indoors on an unprecedented scale at the same time that growers from around the world flooded the North Coast because of its remoteness and deep-rooted counterculture.
Now, with the market glutted, people are simply planting ever-larger crops to make up for the drop in price.
Longtime residents complain that the newcomers cut down trees, grade hillsides, divert creeks to irrigate multi-thousand-plant crops, use heavy pesticides and rat poisons, and run giant, smog-belching diesel generators to illuminate indoor grows. They blaze around in Dodge monster trucks and Cadillac Escalades and don't contribute to upkeep of the roads or schools.