Can pot save the pumpkin farm?

A multimillion dollar offer to grow marijuana is tearing the “World Pumpkin Capital” apart

Can pot save the pumpkin farm?

A multimillion dollar offer to grow marijuana is tearing the “World Pumpkin Capital” apart
John Muller walks through his pumpkin patch in Half Moon Bay. Marijuana growers are interested in partnering with Daylight Farms, and he has the potential to earn millions.
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Photos by Ricky Carioti

John Muller steered his tractor left onto Main Street, four Atlantic Giant pumpkins in tow, and thousands of people at the pumpkin parade screamed with delight.

But there were many others, spread throughout the festival that day, who feared the famous farmer had led the city down an uncertain path, demanding changes that couldn’t be undone and attempting to enrich himself in the process.

John Muller walks through his pumpkin patch in Half Moon Bay. Marijuana growers are interested in partnering with Daylight Farms, and he has the potential to earn millions.

They are determined to stop “Farmer John,” even if it means putting him — and his pumpkin patch — out of business.

On Nov. 6, residents of this small, coastal city will vote on whether Muller, 72, can use a section of his 21-acre farm to grow thousands of young marijuana plants.

Muller and his wife, Eda, said they need this revenue to save their property, Daylight Farms. If voters don’t approve Measure GG, the Mullers could be forced to sell everything before next year’s harvest.

“If that doesn’t pass, there won’t be a pumpkin farm,” Eda Muller told critics at a recent city council meeting, muttering under her breath, “Put that in your pipe and smoke it.”

U.S. farmers last year harvested 2 billion pounds of pumpkins, many of which were later carved into spooky or silly faces for Halloween. The economics behind these Jack-o’-lanterns can be as messy as their gunky guts, though, with everything hanging on six weeks of sales. But these and other iconic American holiday symbols exist in an often overlooked economy with hidden pressures and pain.

For California farmers — many struggling like the Mullers — the state’s legalization of marijuana has offered the prospect of raising a lucrative crop that could keep them on their land. They must first win the approval of their communities, and the debate dividing Half Moon Bay has also paralyzed other parts of the state.

Muller listens as his wife, Eda, reads a text at their dinner table. The farm has been in their family since the 1950s.

Local governments, particularly in remote rural areas, are deciding whether cannabis should be treated like any other crop or banned, out of concern that it could lead to crime and other unwanted social change. Calaveras County, for instance, allowed the cultivation of cannabis, collecting millions of dollars of taxes, only to backtrack. Now growers are suing.

Here in Half Moon Bay, 130 miles west, John Muller’s plans are straining the entire city, pitting neighbor against neighbor, past against future. The choice is about more than farming and economics, reaching into the community’s sense of values. Voters must decide whether to welcome commercial cannabis inside their community and help the farm or stand firm against marijuana and possibly smash the Mullers’ pumpkin business.

In a city that calls itself the World Pumpkin Capital, losing the Mullers’ pumpkins could be a devastating turn of events. Their iconic roadside plot draws wealthy visitors from San Francisco and Silicon Valley for more than a month each autumn.

And the Mullers are the only local farmers who have shown the ability to raise Atlantic Giants, pumpkins that can gain 40 pounds each day and grow to the size of small cars. These orange boulders give the city a connection to its agricultural past, something many residents are scrambling to protect.

Some competitors have boosted revenue by adding haunted houses, hayrides, and corn mazes to their farms, but the Mullers have eschewed such agritourism, describing themselves as purists.

Giant-pumpkin farmers, though, are known for being secretive and wily, and many residents don’t trust the Mullers’ motives despite their increasingly desperate pleas.

Opening Half Moon Bay to commercial cannabis could change the city forever, they worry, normalizing pot for teenagers, luring outside investors with nefarious motives, and drawing federal scrutiny upon farm laborers, many of whom are undocumented Mexican workers.

“To say there are no other crops that a farmer could grow in Half Moon Bay is ridiculous,” said Virginia Turezyn, who works at a business advisory firm and is running for city council on the same ballot as Measure GG. “They could grow Brussels sprouts. They can grow other stuff. . . . Everybody thinks [cannabis] is a cure-all and a panacea, but I’ve read tons of research that highlights tons of negative implications for the community, for crime, for youth and for the stench.”

John Muller walks past some of his heftier pumpkins to feed his chickens.

‘Our little bodies are slowing down a bit’

Eda’s father, Al Adreveno, purchased Daylight Farms in the 1950s, growing flowers for buyers in San Francisco, just 30 miles away. He built glass greenhouses to protect some of the plants, a decision that is central to November’s vote.

His daughter Eda married John, a Vietnam War veteran, in 1969, and they went to work in the family flower business. Adreveno served three terms on the city council and four years as mayor.

During one of those stints, Adreveno challenged the leaders of another pumpkin town, Circleville, Ohio, to a weigh-off. The California community put up the biggest plant, and it has proclaimed its pumpkin dominance ever since.

The family’s flower business relied on the San Francisco market, and they lost roughly 25 percent of their customers by the mid-1990s because of the AIDS crisis. California flower growers were also becoming crowded out by foreign competition.

In the late 1990s, the Mullers pivoted to pumpkins as a way to save their farm. This quickly made them local legends, in part because the Mullers moved in when others were moving out.

The Mullers grow dozens of pumpkin varieties and take part in a festival that draws thousands of tourists to their small community each year.

In 2008, San Mateo County growers raised pumpkins on 263 acres. By 2017, pumpkins grew on just 167 acres. There were fewer pumpkin farms but still plenty of buyers, particularly each October during Half Moon Bay’s Art & Pumpkin Festival, a two-day celebration that can draw 200,000 people, clog roads for miles and raise millions of dollars for nonprofit groups and vendors.

Pumpkins, which local farmers call “punkins,” are difficult to grow profitably on a small farm. They must be farmed on different plots every two to three years, or they can become diseased. Seeds are planted after Mother’s Day in May, and harvest comes four or five months later. Buyers typically want pumpkins only during a six-week stretch, leading up to Halloween. That puts enormous pressure on growers to cash in during a small window.

The Mullers grow 60 varieties of pumpkins, gourds and squash, including Cinderellas, Fairytales and Tonda Padanas. They plant 80,000 seeds each spring, and each seed can produce up to four pumpkins. Harvest takes one month, and then the pumpkins are sold at a plot called Farmer John’s Pumpkins on the Pacific Coast Highway, where visitors can see the ocean peeking across a crest of trees.

The affable and always moving John Muller chats with customers Markus Merlino-Trinh, center, and husband Alan Trinh as they hold their twins, Luca and Nico.

Muller has always been more than just a farmer, though. In 2008, he served his first of two terms as mayor, helping steer the beleaguered city away from bankruptcy. He also served in other local government posts and advised the U.S. Agriculture Department during the Reagan administration.

At his pumpkin patch, he’s a dusty blur, working as greeter, cashier, wheelbarrow pusher and parking director. He’s five-and-a-half feet tall and wears a deep tan on his face from farm work.

On a recent Friday, he was constantly in motion, sporting torn green coveralls and a sweat-stained hat, hugging visitors and pulling wagons and directing people to a tepee past the hay bales.

He looked at times joyful and at times exhausted, saying he had been up at 4 a.m. discussing the farm’s future with Eda. The Mullers still care for Adreveno, now 95, and his wife, who is 90.

“The family estate is dwindling — we’ll have to make some very, very life-altering decisions,” he said. “We worked hard all our lives, but our little bodies are slowing down a bit.”

A lifelong Republican, John Muller voted against the statewide measure in 2016 that legalized the recreational use of marijuana by adults. He was an outlier in Half Moon Bay, where 69 percent of voters backed it.

Hollister said he plans to spend millions to refurbish the greenhouses, and he has called the Mullers’ opponents “hypocrites and fearmongers.”
Hollister holds a Durban Poison marijuana plant.
TOP: John Muller’s pumpkin farm and greenhouses. ABOVE LEFT: Hollister said he plans to spend millions to refurbish the greenhouses, and he has called the Mullers’ opponents “hypocrites and fearmongers.” ABOVE RIGHT: Hollister holds a Durban Poison marijuana plant.

Shortly after that vote, Muller was approached by Eric Hollister, a chef and acquaintance from the local farmers market. Hollister wanted to refurbish the Mullers’ dilapidated greenhouses, grow cannabis “starts” — young, non-flowered plants — and market the products to individual consumers and other commercial growers.

The Mullers were strapped for cash. Health care for Eda’s mother was nearing $10,000 a month. Hollister said he planned to pay the Mullers nearly $1 million a year in rental fees and spend around $3 million rehabbing the greenhouses, which they would still own. Hollister said he could sell between 100,000 and 150,000 plants a month, grown in 65,000 square feet of greenhouse space. Each plant would fetch between $5 and $10, perhaps more.

Because the plants would be “starts,” they wouldn’t have an intense odor and could not be immediately used as recreational marijuana. For struggling pumpkin farmers, Hollister’s offer made it appear their financial rescue was imminent. And it nearly was.

Workers toss and stack pumpkins at the Mullers’ farm to display to customers.

Seeds of discontent

Half Moon Bay’s city council, on which Muller and Adreveno had served for years, met the evening of June 5. On the agenda: an ordinance that would allow certain farms with existing greenhouses to grow young marijuana plants.

California law legalized the recreational use of marijuana, but counties and cities can establish their own rules, particularly regarding how it is grown.

The Half Moon Bay ordinance was written in a way that would benefit only three farms, including the Mullers’. They needed just three votes, and they would be in business.

But word spread fast, and the council meeting was packed. Two children were the first to speak, reading statements about how the ordinance could lead more kids to become hooked on drugs.

Then came local Hispanic leaders, worried that cannabis would lead to raids from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement because the federal government still considers it illegal. The local Catholic Church and public school leaders wanted the measure blocked, too, saying it would erode the community in a way that can’t be easily reversed. People were holding up signs. The backlash had begun.

By the time it was Hollister’s turn to speak, he was livid.

“We cannot listen to the hypocrites or fearmongers who stand up here and tell the whole city that John . . . and myself and our families are drug dealers,” said Hollister, who is 42 and has two young children. “Drug dealers are the very trash that we are trying to keep out of our community, out of cannabis and away from children.”

Council members appeared willing to buck opposition and approve the ordinance, but several backed down as debate stretched toward midnight.

The proposal died, and the council instead put it on the ballot in November. The politicians would let the voters decide.

The Mullers’ problems had only begun. They had planted six Atlantic Giant pumpkin seeds, hoping for a huge showing in the city’s October world championship, but by July, it was clear that cold weather and bad luck would lead to one of their worst showings in years. Their biggest pumpkin would top out at less than 400 pounds, 800 pounds smaller than their record.

As it grew, the Mullers’ critics had months to mobilize.

A growing list of local leaders and prominent residents began urging voters to oppose cannabis farming, even if it meant the end of Farmer John.

Some longtime acquaintances were wondering how hard off the Mullers really were, speculating that this could be a get-rich-quick scheme that benefits only a few, something they’ve seen in neighboring Silicon Valley for years.

Critics pounced on the fact that Hollister and the Mullers haven’t identified the investors who planned to pump millions of dollars into the operation, a detail Hollister said in an interview would be quickly resolved once the vote is concluded. He said the backers are reluctant to commit until the legality is settled.

“ ‘You better be careful, Johnny,’ ” flower farmer Louie Figone said he warned Muller recently. “They can’t borrow it from the bank. He’s going to have to borrow from these industry people, and those people don’t mess around.”

But Figone, who has known the Mullers for 50 years, acknowledged he had other concerns. Hollister said he plans to pay workers in his cannabis greenhouses between $15 and $16 an hour, which would lure labor from farms like the one Figone runs.

“Do you think my men are going to work for $12 an hour if the guy next door is paying $20?” Figone asked, appearing to inflate the cost. “I’m going to have to match that pay.”

From his office, John Muller watches customers peruse his pumpkins.

‘We don’t know if it’s our last’

Muller has tried to brush aside such criticism in recent weeks. He’s a pumpkin salesman and a politician, and he avoids looking rattled.

The faultfinding, especially from friends, appears to infuriate Eda, however, who said they are simply doing everything they can to save the family farm. She said Figone recently asked her why the Mullers couldn’t find a way to make money in farming like other locals, to which Eda said she replied, “That’s great, Louie. I guess we are the only losers.”

Some of the Mullers’ other friends, though, say they believe critics are completely distorting Half Moon Bay’s past and future. John Szabo, whom John Muller taught to grow Atlantic Giants, said he first bought marijuana in the photo lab at Half Moon Bay’s high school in 1968. He thinks people have smoked pot in town longer than they’ve grown pumpkins.

The tension only ballooned ahead of the parade, where “Farmer John” is showcased each year.

Near the beginning of the route, Lisa Warner-Carey, pastor of Community United Methodist Church, was helping her parish sell turkey legs to onlookers. She had moved to Half Moon Bay eight years ago from another place in Northern California, where she said there was a lax drug culture. Her move was driven in part by a desire to escape an environment she felt wasn’t safe for raising kids.

“If we really legalize cannabis grows in Half Moon Bay, we are running the risk 20 years down the road of following on the path of tobacco farmers, where it’s discovered to be detrimental but we are reliant on it as part of the economy,” she said.

Most of the parade watchers were tourists who had no idea about the local rift. Hollister and a few others walked through the festival wearing green shirts that read, “Let Our Farmers Grow,” a phrase that probably didn’t resonate with most.

As Muller slowly steered the tractor down the street, a grandchild in his lap, he waved, mostly hidden in a shadow, more cautious than jubilant.

Eda sat near the back of the float, behind the four giant pumpkins they had borrowed because their Atlantic Giants were too small. Her mother’s health was failing, she knew, and maybe the farm’s fate was beyond her control. Two weeks after the festival, her mother passed away.

At times during the parade, Eda Muller waved, but at times, she also just sat there, staring out at the crowd behind large sunglasses. The vote is the Tuesday after Halloween, and the Mullers will know their fate then. In a text message a few hours later, she wrote that the whole parade was “bittersweet because we don’t know if it’s our last one or not.”

John and Eda Muller embrace at the end of the work day.
Credits: Story by Damian Paletta. Photos by Ricky Carioti. Designed by Mia Torres.