Feb 18, 2010
California Pumpkin Grower Seeks to be a Facilitator

If there’s anybody out there who can take a farmer, a politician, a regulator, a corporate CEO and an environmentalist, sit them down on hay bales and get them to share their viewpoints, it’s probably Farmer John.

He’d be the ideal choice because he’s got a foot in all of those worlds. He’s been farming for about four decades, he’s the mayor of Half Moon Bay, Calif., he’s chairman of the regional water quality control board, he hosts corporate outings on his farm and he’s 27 miles south of San Francisco, home of some rather vociferous environmentalists.

His real name is John Muller, but he refers to himself as Farmer John. He even ran for election as Farmer John. It’s a role he plays to the hilt, sometimes driving his John Deere to city hall – three blocks from the farm.

But it’s not just for show. He wants to be a facilitator. He wants to bring different worlds – urban and agriculture – together. He’s talked to people all over the planet, and on his farm, trying to do just that.

“I’ve been to the White House and the outhouse,” he often says.

Farmer John, 63, grew up on a dairy farm on the California coast. After a stint in the armed forces, he married a girl named Eda in 1969. They started working with Eda’s parents, who grew flowers. John and Eda took over the farm about 15 years ago, but her parents still live there. Add them to John and Eda’s two daughters and two grandchildren, and family dinners are often a four-generation affair, he said.

They stopped growing flowers about a decade ago, and now focus on produce – especially pumpkins.

“We do pumpkins, produce and politics,” John said.

There are actually two different farms: One for pumpkins and one for everything else. Farmer John’s Pumpkin Farm is open to u-pick customers in October. The growers set up a little shack among their 12 acres, where customers can choose from about 60 varieties.

They also grow giant pumpkins. Last fall, they grew the largest specimen in the history of the region: 1,200 pounds. It was the biggest pumpkin at the Half Moon Bay Art & Pumpkin Festival, other than a 1,600-pounder from Iowa. 2009 was an “amazing” year for giant pumpkins around Half Moon Bay, John said. Ten entries at the festival weighed more than 1,000 pounds each.

“We never dreamed we’d grow a thousand-pounder on the Pacific coast,” he said.

The other branch of the business, Daylight Farms, grows 20 acres of miscellaneous crops, including herbs, mint, arugula, basil, beets, Swiss chard, cilantro, parsley, mixed lettuces, onions, leeks and potatoes. Eda imports their vegetable seed – all “Old World” varieties – from Italy, John said.

They sell their Daylight Farms produce at area farmers’ markets and to local restaurants and other outlets, such as the Ritz-Carlton in Half Moon Bay. They don’t do agritourism and don’t have an on-farm market. John has dreamed of his own market, but he’s getting too old for that, he said, with a laugh.

“We’re doing everything we can to stay in agriculture,” he said. “You do that by changing, though maybe we’ve changed too slowly.”

They do earn revenue from bringing people to the farm, however. They allow advertising companies to do photo shoots and also host corporate outings.

For the outings, John will cut a “room” out of the corn field (the corn is for décor only) and stack hay bales for people to sit on. They get to carve pumpkins, too.

The outings don’t last more than a day, so John doesn’t have to worry about lodging his guests. He doesn’t worry too much about them getting rained on, either.

The weather around Half Moon Bay has been unusually pleasant the last couple of years – except for an unseasonable 4 inches of rain one day in October – which is good for hosting outings, but not so good for growing crops. Like other California farmers dealing with drought, John’s praying for more precipitation. His water supply comes from two wells, which he nurses gently. His pumpkins are drip irrigated.

Times are tough right now, but small farms and buying local are popular. That’s a trend that John, Eda and their 15 employees are working hard to capitalize on.

To John, it’s about emotion. His pumpkin fields allow his urban neighbors to reconnect to agriculture. It’s an opportunity for nurturing, in more ways than one.

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