The Columbian / Associated Press

Marijuana trimmers at ground level of an emerging industry

On a sunny afternoon in Vancouver, a former bank software expert, a temp, a nurse and a restaurant worker kept their hands busy as they chatted about why they left their old jobs and decided to try something new.

980513 Bud Trimmers

The group, all bud trimmers at Cedar Creek Cannabis, are starting out on the ground floor of the emerging legal marijuana industry, which they see as a fun and fascinating career opportunity.

The entry-level jobs, which include removing leaves and stems from more potent marijuana flower buds, generally pay between $12 and $15 an hour — far more than most entry-level positions in other fields. And with experience, the employees can move up to other careers such as gardeners or concentrate makers that pay even more comfortable salaries in the $50,000 to $90,000 range.

“I feel like I have the awesome-est job in the world,” said Brittny Houghton, 32, whose family owns the business, as she worked with the group.

“I second that,” said Kurt Vermillion, 32, the former temp and seasonal worker. “I’ve done everything from pumping gas to remodeling houses, but I think there’s longevity in this. I think there’s lots of growing room in this industry. I want to do whatever they need me to do.”

New careers

The job of bud trimming has transformed as Washington’s legal marijuana industry has grown, and its become much more legitimate and professional. After plants are grown and harvested, whether at a year-round indoor site or seasonal outdoor site, a crew of trimmers and processors cut and package the product to prepare it for sale at recreational pot stores across the state. There are eight growers in Clark County so far that have had their licenses approved by the state Liquor Control Board, with several more preparing for their final inspections. Five stores have opened in Clark County so far, with at least two more planning to open in the next two months.

In the illegal market, bud trimmers would come to the grow site at harvest time and be paid in cash by the pound for however much marijuana they could trim. Those workers tend to migrate from grow to grow, and they risk going to jail if they’re caught.

In the legal market, though, employees are paid by check, often through an hourly wage, although some are still paid by the pound. Marijuana workers also pay taxes and file W2 forms, just like workers in other industries.

“It’s a fun job, an exciting job, but it’s also a serious one,” Houghton said. “I think what happens is people think in this industry, people are just hanging out and maybe even smoking. But that’s not what we do. It’s a real job, it’s 9 to 5, you have to be on time, you don’t have to be a smoker, and the quality of the work is important.”

As the industry continues to grow, many trimmers and other entry-level workers will get other normal benefits such as vacation days and retirement packages.

“We want to work on employee retention,” said Mark Michaelson, head of operations at Cedar Creek Cannabis. “Eventually we’ll have health and dental insurance and full benefits for them, too.”

The main reason most companies don’t have those sorts of benefits already is because nearly all the businesses in the recreational market are small — and even the oldest ones haven’t been around much longer than one year.

Cedar Creek Cannabis currently has 14 full-time employees, including seven trimmers and packagers. And since operations began about three months ago, two people who started out as trimmers have already graduated to working in the grow room as gardening assistants, Michaelson said.

“We’re also planning on hiring a few more (trimmers) pretty soon, and we have a sales rep and a delivery guy that are about to come on,” he said.

Variety of backgrounds

On the surface, bud trimming may seem like an odd career move, but the Cedar Creek workers said they love the relaxed atmosphere, the laughter and fun working environment.

“For someone like me, this is extremely cathartic,” said Julie Whittaker, 37, who used to work in the banking software industry. “It’s like coloring. You can sit here and listen to music and talk with your friends. It’s a really cool job.”

Whittaker left her former job to spend more time with her daughter, who’s now 10. When she was ready to get back to work, she decided she didn’t want to go back to the stress of her former career. That’s when Houghton, a longtime friend, asked her if she wanted to get into the cannabis industry.

“I’ve been learning my way as I go,” said Whittaker, who started with the company in November. “I’m intrigued by this whole industry. It’s a big shift for me, and honestly I find it to be better regulated than even my old career in banking.”

Trimming leaves and other things away from marijuana buds with small scissors is sort of like pruning tiny bonsai trees. There’s a creativity to making them look nice that’s relaxing and fun, she said.

Another worker, Shova Chhetri, 42, came to the United States from Nepal in 2001. She and her husband, a software engineer, moved to Clark County in 2006. Chhetri, who’s not a smoker, used to work as a nurse when the family that owns Cedar Creek used to run an adult family home.

When the family got into the marijuana business, she moved into it with them and became a trimmer.

“I never ever thought in my life (I’d be doing this),” Chhetri said of working with marijuana. “But I’m happy. The people, the working environment, the teamwork — whatever I do here I enjoy.”

CannaMan Farms has also seen people join the industry from a variety of backgrounds as they seek new opportunities, said Brian Stroh, owner of the Vancouver company.

“We have a retired art teacher from the Midwest, a guy from New Vansterdam who wanted to spend more time around plants a few days a week, some employees that started out in the underground or medical market,” Stroh said. “People enter this business from all over. And it’s a business that people who work hard can move up in.”

The top shelf market

It may be an entry-level job, but bud trimmers are also a critical part of the top-shelf marijuana market, Stroh said. Some growers use mechanical trimmers, but hand trimming protects the plants and leads to a higher quality end product, he said.

“Machine trimming, you’re moving things by weight and breaking them down,” Stroh said. “You drop your flower into the trimmer and what you end up with is trimmed bud that’s banged up a bit. The machine trimmers, they’re like these big washing machine things that basically spin the plants horizontally.”

The motion also knocks off some of the keif, which is made of trichomes, the tiny white-ish globs that form on marijuana leaves and buds. Trichomes house such compounds as THC, CBD and terpenes, the chemicals that marijuana customers want most.

“You still get (trichomes) in machine-trimmed marijuana,” Stroh said. “But hand trimming, you keep more of them and it looks great in the bag.”

Stroh has eight trimmers and processors working for him, most paid in that same $12 to $15 an hour range. Those workers, some of whom are part time, hand trim buds and package them for the market, among other things.

Growing opportunities

Mike McElveny, operations manager at Agrijuana in Battle Ground, said his trimmers and processors also start at $12 an hour, with a wage that can increase to $15 to $17 an hour and also lead to even higher-paying careers down the line.

“Trimmers can go on to be harvest managers, they can work on the packaging line, there are lots of positions in this industry,” McElveny said.

His company has 16 full-time employees and will likely hire more soon, growing to 25-30 employees when fully operational, he said.

“We’re constantly growing and harvesting,” McElveny said. “It doesn’t slow down.”

And with the sector still only in its first year in Washington, there are many more career opportunities to come, here or in other legal markets, including Oregon’s, that are only just being put together.

That’s good news for Travis Dahmen, 24, another Cedar Creek trimmer who used to work in the restaurant industry. He said he’s excited to find himself working toward a long-term career in a new industry that he loves.

“I think becoming a grower would be fun, but I’m also perfectly happy doing what I’m doing now,” Dahmen said. “Trimming, it’s cool. We can focus and make sure the job gets done really well. Hopefully I’ll still be with the company 10 years from now — that would be great.”