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HALF MOON BAY — For generations, famed grower “Farmer John” Muller has delighted residents of this small town, donating his time, tales, and truckloads of orange, white, green, red and butter-hued gourds.
But in an era of Big Ag, pumpkins and produce don’t pay the bills anymore.
And his next crop — baby cannabis plants — is carving a rift through the community like a slice into a jack-o’-lantern.
“We’re saying ‘no’ to marijuana,” said local resident Joaquin Jimenez, who has joined the town’s Catholic church and a committee of high school parents in fierce opposition to the plan. “We’re very proud of our community and we don’t want to put any dark cloud over it.”
In early June, the city will debate an ordinance to allow farmers to grow legal marijuana sprouts in “nurseries” in existing greenhouses. Locals are currently circulating a new petition that calls for a moratorium on all cannabis cultivation and sales, and several ballot measures are headed to November’s election.
Both supporters and opponents seek to preserve the agricultural small-town atmosphere of their cherished town — but see different paths forward.
The 72-year-old Muller, known as “Farmer John,” doesn’t want the psychoactive stuff on his property, Daylight Farms. Rather, he envisions renting out his dilapidated greenhouses as a place for the baby cannabis “starters.” The young plants would be sold to dispensaries around the Bay Area for others to raise to maturity.
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It’s a seeming contradiction for Muller, a former mayor, City Council member and longtime chair of the San Francisco Regional Water Quality Control Board, who has never touched marijuana, and voted against Prop. 64, which legalized cannabis in California.
A third-generation farmer who was born on a San Gregorio dairy farm, he attended a one-room schoolhouse and fought in the Gulf of Tonkin during the Vietnam War. He’s a strait-laced Republican and graduate of the FBI Citizen’s Academy who advised the U.S. Department of Agriculture under the Reagan and Bush administrations.
“We were opposed to the hippie world,” he said. Rather than smoking joints, “I’d have half a beer at a party out in the barn.”
As mayor, he guided the city through its worst crisis, when it faced an $18 million debt that threatened to bankrupt the community in 2009. His wife Eda was the first female president of the San Mateo County Farm Bureau. Over the decades, the family has hosted special events for disabled children and greeted tourists from around the world.
These days, rising at 5 a.m. to tend to his chickens, his idea of a wild time is a glass of Maker’s Mark bourbon whiskey.
But there are mounting bills. A full-time caregiver is needed for his in-laws, ages 90 and 95, which costs thousands of dollars a month. Facing such expense, the family finances are withering like a dry field in August.
With only 18 acres, he can’t compete with Big Ag, he said. The family’s flower business fell victim to globalization. He sells arugula, herbs and $10-a-dozen eggs at the local farmer’s market.
His pumpkins — such as a 1,200-pound Atlantic Giant named Methuselah — have earned accolades. But that’s not enough to stay financially afloat or fix his three greenhouses, rusted and drafty with broken panes.
“I wish I could survive 12 months on two months of pumpkins,” he said. “Our ancestors all came to this country as peddlers and then it changed into the larger scale agriculture. Then all of a sudden we’re peddlers again.”
There’s a scratch that needs fixing on the family Buick, “but we don’t have the money to do those things anymore,” he said. “We have health care and food and a roof over our head. The bathroom floor is peeling. But we’re not going to fix it.”
Father-in-law Al Adreveno, 94, who served on the City Council for three terms and was mayor four times, leaned on a cane and described changing times. “It’s gotten to the point where it’s very difficult for the family farm to compete with the corporate farms.”
“This is not about us; it is about California agriculture with the possibility of a new crop that can grow in our area, just like other crops,” said wife Eda Muller. “All farmers are looking for something they can grow to keep them in agriculture. We still want to farm; just something that is productive for all.”
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“If this does not work out, we will be forced to sell; move away from our town and our home and way of life,” she said.
This is the plan, conceived by local resident Eric Hollister: The nursery, regulated by the California Department of Food and Agriculture, would grow plants between germination and flowering. The small plants, in one-gallon pots, would be sold to clients within 10 days to three weeks. The greenhouses are isolated, located at the end of a long private road.
Hollister and his team would lease the greenhouses, bringing fresh energy, ideas and funding to the farm, the family says. Hollister, the Palo Alto-born son of a Stanford-educated Lockheed engineer, must line up $6 million in potential investors to tear down and replace Muller’s greenhouses and get the business off the ground. The team would hire up to 25 workers, and would pay for health insurance and higher wages than what is earned in the fields, he said.
It’s an approach adopted by Redwood City, Berkeley and other cities that want cannabis revenue but not large scale crop production.
Outside of town, San Mateo County’s Board of Supervisors have agreed to allow commercial marijuana cultivation in greenhouses in the unincorporated areas of the coast, such as Pescadero, Montara, El Granada, Princeton and areas along State Route 92.
But weed is facing a far cooler reception here in the “World Pumpkin Capital.” Although 69 percent of residents voted for Prop. 64, there is opposition to bringing it into their town. Four farms with greenhouses in the city would be eligible for cultivation under the draft ordinance stalled in Half Moon Bay.
Their fear: Nurseries could lead to expansion of large-scale operations — bringing out-of-town workers, perhaps criminals, to the quaint and isolated coast. Today, nurseries; tomorrow, something far more insidious.
“We like pumpkins. We like Brussels sprouts. We like artichokes. You know, we grow beautiful flowers here in Half Moon Bay,” said Jimenez.
Nearly one-third of Half Moon Bay’s population is Latino — and there’s a cultural disdain for marijuaneros, tokers who are seen as linked to cartels and unproductive members of the community. Polls also show that Latinos tend to support law-and-order issues and are socially conservative.
Additionally, the town’s Latinos fear a raid on farm workers of a crop that’s still illegal under federal law. And they fear their youth would be lured to cannabis work.
“We’re more interested in cultivating young minds, not cultivating marijuana,” said Jimenez, 31, the college-educated son of a Mexican migrant worker. “We want to educate our kids, have them get a better future. And marijuana is not the future for them.”
Some of the deepest opposition comes from Our Lady of the Pillar Catholic Church, founded 150 years ago when Half Moon Bay was called Spanish Town. It’s the largest parish in San Mateo County, with a devout following.
“The Catholic church does not want to see farm workers exploited,” said congregant and retired attorney Ann Martin. “We see it as opening the door to increased criminal activity. … We feel that this is an attempt by the marijuana industry to merely get a foot in the door.”
A public hearing about nurseries will be held on June 5. Meanwhile, a petition drafted by Rick Southern, a parent on Half Moon Bay High School’s Health and Wellness Committee, seeks to suspend all commercial cultivation, processing and sale of cannabis for two to three years until more research can be done. He wants the city to assess the experiences of other places that are adding cannabis businesses to their economy.
“This is not like over the hill, in Silicon Valley. … We’re a small and very multi-generational town,” said Southern. “I’m very concerned about changing the environment. Once you approve one stage, then everybody’s pushing for the next stage, which is retail sales. There’s so much money in it.”
Muller sees it differently. As he loaded his truck for the weekly farmer’s market, he fretted over the rising cost of chicken feed and his falling earnings from fresh mint.
“How long can we hold onto these conditions we’re living in?” he said. “I don’t know if I can keep doing it year after year.
“Cannabis is just another plant.”
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