SISKIYOU COUNTY, Calif. — The narcotics officer stood on a windswept ridge near the Oregon border and surveyed the fields cut into the hills below, a landscape resembling a lost piece of wine country.
The terraces of Siskiyou County, however, were planted in cannabis.
More than 1,500 Hmong farmers in the past two years have poured into this remote county, so vast it encompasses two western mountain ranges.
By the second growing season in 2016, satellite images showed nearly 1,000 parcels laden with dark green crops. Depending on whose yield estimates and black market prices you rely on, the Hmong’s Siskiyou crop had a value as high as $1 billion.
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Where it was bound for, the growers would not say.
Mouying Lee, a businessman whose name surfaces in every facet of the Siskiyou marijuana story, said with a deadpan delivery that his clansmen came here “for the feng shui” of the mountains. He pointed out that most of the landholders are elderly: Former factory workers and mechanics from Wisconsin. Old aunts and uncles.
The abundant crop is grown for personal use, Lee said. For poultices and shower rinses. For broth and tea.
County officials don’t buy it. They say that Siskiyou is being forced into the nation’s $49 billion black market for marijuana, sparking a modern range war.
So much land has changed hands so quickly in cash deals that Sheriff Jon Lopey is convinced he is fighting the hidden hand of organized crime.
Land speculators more than a half-century ago carved Siskiyou County’s unbuildable high desert and mountain slopes into half a dozen large subdivisions with “vacation” parcels — many of which did not sell and later wound up trading for $500 an acre on eBay.