Local Start Up Legitimizes Cannabis Gig Work

Maria Busby and her husband were staying with a friend while their Grass Valley house was being remodeled. They were just days away from moving back in when the River Fire swept through and burnt it to the ground. Everything was lost: family heirlooms, hand-stitched quilts, cherrywood tables, Tiffany lamps. Busby had been carrying them around with her for decades. Now she is free of them, and that’s how she wants to view it–as freedom from “stuff”, rather than as a gut-wrenching loss. 

“I give gratitude for how long I did have these things and enjoyed them,” she says. 

Busby doesn’t dwell on the past; she has big personal deadlines to hit. Despite being a fire survivor, Busby just launched a business that’s been over a year in the making. Called Gold Coast Botanicals, it’s a staffing agency for farm workers in Nevada County’s licensed cannabis industry. She aims to release the pressures of finding employees from cannabis cultivators, while providing stability and some of the traditional perks of legal employment to the seasonal workers who sustain them.

Busby’s house after the River Fire

Busby’s company is what’s known as a Farm Labor Contractor, or FLC. In California, FLCs make up over 50 percent of the agricultural workforce, but cannabis-specific FLCs are, not surprisingly, a new thing. The value proposition of an FLC, whether it’s for growing strawberries or Strawberry Kush, is similar: the contractor provides on-demand workers so that farms don’t have to hire full time employees. 

Legal cannabis farmers in Nevada County are currently looking for anything that will  make their lives easier. Many are hurting from the process of having come into compliance with the state and county. Becoming licensed usually comes at a steep price: cultivators must make improvements to their property, such as bringing existing structures up to code, and paving roads above a certain grade. If they have employees, they must make their buildings ADA compliant, and provide restrooms that are separate from residential buildings. In addition, they’ve got new backoffice headaches they didn’t have before, like paying taxes. 

Because Nevada County’s local cannabis ordinance caps cultivation at 10,000 square feet (less than a quarter of an acre), to be a legal grower here means that you’re by definition a small farmer. For many of these small growers who have struggled through the financial and emotional challenges of becoming legal, having a business like Busby’s to handle staffing woes is a welcome prospect.

“This is my 10th season cultivating, and I can tell you, since we went legal, it’s not a summer job anymore!” laughs Abraham Valensky, president of Grass Valley-based Green Hummingbird Farms. Valensky talks about his new responsibilities, which include payroll, paperwork associated with compliance, taxes, workers’ compensation. “It falls on the single farmer, and it’s a lot of work. I’m sitting here right now with my wife trying to do payroll,” he says.

Valensky previously tried to contract with a non-cannabis FLC out of Yolo County, but choked on the fact that workers would have to commute several hours to get to his job site while on his dime.

Like a traditional FLC, Gold Coast Botanicals will take care of payroll and workers’ comp, as well as provide training in things like pesticide handling and CPR. In some cases, the company will even supply its own portable toilet to the farm for workers to use if none are available (at cost.) Busby plans to hire mainly from within Nevada County, at first, and only charge employers for a 6 hour work day to give employees time to commute to the farms before they’re on the clock. She will inspect each work site prior to sending out workers to make sure it’s in compliance with safety regulations.

Agricultural work is seasonal, and cannabis is no different. Whether you’re growing indoor or outdoor, there will be times when nothing much is going on, and other times when you will need extra help. Having access to a staffing firm to fill gaps when needed is a way to take care of this issue more efficiently.

Maria Busby

“Having access to a farm labor contractor would be invaluable for the harvests and replants which require so much more work than the day-to-day operations of a farm,” says Daniel Fink, owner of Down OM Farms in Nevada County. 

Pat Rockwell, owner of Green Gift Gardens and co-founder of Sierra Sungrown Cooperative in Nevada County, says she and three of her children are doing all the work on the farm themselves, unable to take “that step of additional cost” to hire people. “We’re just at that tipping point where everybody’s exhausted. We haven’t had a vacation in years. This is not a viable way to live,” says Rockwell. 

“Now, [Gold Coast Botanical’s] per-hour rate may be higher [than what we would be used to paying], but the extra costs–payroll, insurance–are something the FLC would take on, so it would be worth it.” (For an entry-level worker, Busby plans to charge $21 an hour to farms, $15 of which would go back to the worker. She also hopes to offer more skilled labor for a higher price.)

The seasonality of cannabis farming, and its previously illegal status gave rise to the “trimmigrant” phenomenon: young people (mostly), who migrated to cannabis farms during the harvest season to live on a grow site, trim buds, and make tens of thousands of dollars cash under the table. What Busby is offering for farm workers is a chance to go legit, along with the rest of the industry. There won’t be that massive windfall, but there will be stability. You will pay taxes, but you will also be able to show proof of income, should you need to rent an apartment or get a mortgage. She plans to offer bonuses and raises. 

Emily Porter, a compliance consultant for the local Nevada County cannabis industry, says she sees working for an FLC as the best alternative for farm workers wishing to work on multiple cannabis cultivation sites, legally.

“Let’s say you’re an employee for six different farms, that is a nightmare for your taxes,” says Porter. “It’s not a very practical way to go about it in a legal world.” 

Still, practicality and ease-of-doing-one’s-taxes weren’t things that typically attracted people to cannabis. It may be a learning curve to sell large numbers of former “trimmigrants” on the idea of signing up with Gold Coast Botanicals. 

“Legal farms are competing with the illicit market, whose employees are used to getting paid huge amounts of money,” says Pat Rockwell of Green Gift Gardens. “Those workers are spoiled. They had a life where they could work for four months, then go to Belize for the winter!” 

Local growers predict, in grim tones, that “those workers” are about to get a rude awakening this year, as prices have tanked for cannabis, both on the legal and illegal market. Cannabis just isn’t selling like it was, and there’s a lot more of it, as more counties and bigger grow operations enter the marketplace. 

“Unfortunately the good ol’ days are done where you’re going to be making a couple hundred bucks a pound to trim,” says cultivator John Foley, who owns Yellow Dog Family Farms in Nevada County. “I just don’t see that as sustainable.”

In other words: welcome to the real world. Gold Coast Botanicals is here to assist.

More to explore

What Does it Mean to Be a Woman?

Nevada City-based Artist Ruth Chase is part anthropologist, part visual artist. She makes paintings, public art, and films that are inspired by