Ashley Maldonado had been working with special needs children for five years when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Her pay dropped drastically when the elementary school she worked at reduced in-person learning. Since she wasn't making enough money, she quit her job, started working in the cannabis industry, and never looked back.
Now, Maldonado is one of the top weed trimmers at the joint Cloud Cannabis and Wonderbrett grow facility in Kalamazoo. She trims between 1,300 to 2,000 grams of marijuana a day on average (around four pounds), and makes $19 an hour — a huge jump from her previous job as a paraprofessional.
"I absolutely loved [working with special needs children] and I would never have left if it wasn't for the pay," Maldonado tells Metro Times as she quickly snips dried leaves and stems from marijuana flower buds. "I used to actually be one of the worst performers here, one of the slowest. I was producing like 600 grams a day, but then I got more focused."
Maldonado is just one of more than 31,000 people working in Michigan's booming cannabis industry. In case you haven't heard, Michigan has the third-highest number of cannabis jobs in the country, surpassed only by California and Colorado. In Michigan, the number of people working with marijuana tops firefighters and police officers combined, according to a January 2022 report by Seattle-based cannabis website Leafly.
So who are the people working behind the scenes to produce marijuana on a massive scale? What are their stories? Well, at the Wonderbrett operation you'll find everyone from former healthcare workers to Potawatomi tribe members.
We recently spent a day at the Wonderbrett-Cloud Cannabis facility, seeing every step of the weed-production process from cloning the mother plant, transplanting, cultivating, drying, and trimming, all the way to packaging the final product. Along the way, workers told us how they got started in the cannabis industry, which has changed their lives for the better.
Wonderbrett is an ultra-premium cannabis brand from California that transplanted itself into the Michigan market in January 2022. The company has partnered with Michigan-grown Cloud Cannabis to produce its fruit-flavored strains in Kalamazoo and ship them across the state.
And we're not saying "ultra-premium" just because of some marketing jargon either — Wonderbrett has the good shit. Co-founder Brett Feldman has been growing OG Kush in L.A. and selling it to rappers like Snoop Dogg, Dr. Dre, and Xzibit since the 1990s.
The brand cultivates rare genetics, typically with fairly high THC content, plus the weed just straight up tastes good when you smoke it. We guess that's to be expected when you name your strains "Grapes of Wrath," "Melon OG," and "Orange Banana." And yes, of course, we smoked it. Call it a little bit of "authenticity testing" for this story.
Cloud Cannabis acquired the facility (casually called "the grow") back in September 2021 from another weed operation called TruGro. Feldman and Wonderbrett co-founder Cameron Damwijk came on board, helped design the grow, and trained staff on the Wonderbrett method. The facility has brought around 50 jobs to the Kalamazoo area.
When we arrive at the massive greenhouse with bright, temperature-controlled rooms, we're greeted by Damwijk, who is also Wonderbrett's head cultivator. He gives an animated speech about how the grow is like a family, and invites us to pot a transplant or trim some weed if we want to. It's cliche, but unlike other companies that pretend to give a shit about their staff and are only concerned with profits, it feels sincere. Everyone legitimately seems happy as they go about their day.
Wonderbrett works off a 10-day production cycle from harvest, transplant, and defoliation to cloning, where the process repeats with a new set of plants. Yes, we know, it sounds backwards to start at harvest, but that's how the company separates its work days so everything runs like a well-oiled machine.
It takes around 150 days from the time a plant is cloned from the mother for it to be ready for market sales. At any given time, the Kalamazoo grow has about 3,200 marijuana plants growing in different stages.
The day we visit is transplant day, where baby cannabis plants that have recently been snipped from the mother are taken from the nursery and potted so they can grow up strong and produce the flower we know and love.
This is where we meet JR, one of the lead cultivators who was previously a treasurer for the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indians' tribal government. This isn't his first rodeo with cannabis, however. He and his wife have been caregivers for almost a decade. He started growing cannabis after leaving his 10-year post as a pharmacy technician and deciding to return to his roots, "doing things the natural way again."
"From my Potawatomi perspective, this is traditional medicine," he says about the freshly-potted cannabis. "I worked at St. Johns Hospital, Troy Beaumont, and Henry Ford Macomb, and I transferred over from doing a more chemical version of medicine to now an organic one. This is what I believe in. I gave up on [the pharmacy industry] because it felt like profiteering. It felt like we were just treating symptoms and not really healing people."
JR turned to cannabis after he was prescribed opiates and steroids for insufferable migraines, which he knew were detrimental to his health with prolonged use.
"Cannabis made things manageable and was so much better for me than taking a chemistry version of compounds that our bodies are not designed to process," he says. "There's always a trade-off [with pharmaceuticals]. They'll help you in one way, harm you a little bit in another. Cannabis does not do that."
When the job at the Cloud Cannabis-Wonderbrett site came up, it was a no-brainer, he says, since he already had cultivation experience.
“I can actually support my family here and pay my bills and be able to put some money into savings. It’s opened up so many more doors for me and my kids.”
Transitioning from the healthcare field is a common theme among the workers. Desron Culpepper, another cultivation lead at the grow, had worked in healthcare for more than 15 years, and left his job in search of something more fulfilling just before COVID-19 hit. He started growing cannabis at home before getting a job at a local dispensary, where he worked for a few months before transitioning behind the scenes.
He already had a love for gardening, but it turns out growing cannabis runs in the family.
"It was funny because I hadn't consumed from 1999 and 2019, almost 20 years," he says. "My mom told me that my grandfather was actually a cultivator but with the legality of it all, obviously it was a family secret. So it turns out I'm a second- or third-generation cultivator, and I love it. You know, it's like what I was supposed to be doing."
Culpepper instructs us how to pot a transplant in dried coconut husks, emphasizing that plants need gentle care to grow. His voice is nurturing like a parent teaching a child to ride a bike, and his loving respect for the plants is obvious. The experience feels more like volunteering at a community garden than working in a cannabis-growing facility.
"We stay out of the way of the plant," he explains. "The cannabis knows exactly what it's doing. We're just trying to coach it along. Even when we are turning different knobs to adjust the way the plant grows... the crop's going the way it wants to go. We're just kind of guiding it, making sure it's got the right nutrients and everything.
He adds, perhaps no longer talking about just plants, "you got to realize you're the water and not the rock. We spend a lot of time thinking that we're gonna impose our will on the way things are going and change the direction. You can wear down a rock eventually, but just realize that you're going the right direction, whichever way you're supposed to be going."
If we're the water and not the rock, we must let life take us wherever it wants instead of clutching to relationships, jobs, and situations that we want to be for us when they aren't. We must trust the ebbs and flows to lead us where we need to go.
It's time to move on to the trim room.
Here, Maldonado and the trim crew are snipping away at the dried buds diligently to meet their goal of 900 grams each per day. When it's our turn to give it a try, Maldonado puts us to shame, perfectly shaping at least 10 fat nugs by the time we finally finish a tiny one.
Nearly everyone we meet here is upfront about making more money working in the cannabis industry than in their previous jobs. Another trimmer, Amy Siler, declines to give an exact amount, but says she now makes three times as much as she did in her former career as a veterinarian assistant.
"I can actually support my family here and pay my bills and be able to put some money into savings," she says. "It's opened up so many more doors for me and my kids. My kids are like, 'oh my god, we're gonna go on a vacation? What is that?' Yeah, I miss the animals and the clients I always worked with, but as far as regrets, no. I don't have any."
Siler and two other Wonderbrett workers, England Davis and Penny Breitkreutz, started off as contractors that would go and trim weed at different grow sites. The three all decided to stay at Wonderbrett full-time because they enjoyed it so much.
Breitkreutz is now a packaging lead — she checks each eighth jar for what she calls "the wow factor" before it's boxed up and shipped off.
She got a job in cannabis after suffering an anxiety attack at the elderly care facility where she was working. Quitting the job she worked for 30 years was terrifying, but not nearly as scary as the looming anxiety over working in healthcare during a pandemic.
"There was so much fighting in the office over being vaccinated or not vaccinated and wearing a mask," she says. "And I don't judge. I'm coming to work and doing what I have to do, but then I had an anxiety attack that turned into a panic attack, and then I was out cold on the floor at work. Something caused me to black out. Something was wrong. Something was just sitting on my chest and I didn't want to go back to work. There was too much anxiety."
Before she started trimming weed, Breitkreutz worked at Walmart for a few months just to make ends meet. Going back to her old job was out of the question.
"I was never going to be homeless, and my kids were never going to go without food so it was just something I had to do," she says. "The medical field is all about politics. Here it's a totally different atmosphere. Instead of just coming and doing the job, everybody is actually working toward the same goal. It's nice to see everybody working as a team."
She goes on packing flower buds into eighth jars with ease, no stress and no worries.
There are, perhaps, some misconceptions out there that people working with marijuana are sitting around getting lit all day, but that couldn't be further from the truth at the Wonderbrett grow. Everyone here takes their job very seriously — plus that would be a lot of money lost for Wonderbrett because their weed is not cheap.
The workers have become water, rolling past a rocky river basin of low wages and discontentment, toward life in a calm stream.