Can pot save the pumpkin farm?

Nov 01, 2018, 03:00 PM

Washington Post

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.

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.

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 ...