The Great Pumpkin lives... in Half Moon Bay
September/October 2009 California Country magazine
Story and photos by Tracy Sellers
Nobody celebrates the pumpkin better than the sleepy coastal town of Half Moon Bay.
As the months go by, there are certain fruits and vegetables that are beacons of a new season approaching. This time of year, that fruit is definitely the pumpkin.
John Muller stands behind just two of the hundreds of unique, homegrown gourds at his Half Moon Bay farm, where kids of all ages go to pick out a pumpkin and learn about agriculture.
Revered since the days of the Pilgrims, today pumpkins are a favorite of kids and adults of all ages—all searching for the perfect one. But nobody celebrates the pumpkin better than the sleepy coastal town of Half Moon Bay in San Mateo County. The 15 commercial growers there produce about 3,000 tons of pumpkins each fall, rightfully earning their tiny town a mighty moniker: "World Pumpkin Capital."
The coastal climate in Half Moon Bay, about 30 miles south of San Francisco, is perfect for pumpkins because they typically like warm daytime temperatures and cool nights. And folks there have one motto to live by: If you grow it, they will come—to the Annual Half Moon Bay Art & Pumpkin Festival and World Championship Pumpkin Weigh-Off, that is.
The "heavyweight championship" for pumpkins, as some have called it, was started in 1974 when officials from the city of Half Moon Bay challenged Circleville, Ohio—which had proclaimed itself "Pumpkin Capital of the World"—to a weigh-off.
Now farmers from all over the West bring their gigantic gourds to Half Moon Bay in hopes that the time spent caring for their crop all year long has been worth the wait. And spectators, both small and large, come to get a look at some of the biggest pumpkins in the land.
Last fall they came, they saw and they weighed. And in the end, the winning pumpkin tipped the scales at more than 1,500 pounds. But the other big winner on that day was a local legend and pumpkin pioneer known around these parts simply as "Farmer John." His 900-pound pumpkin was the biggest ever grown in San Mateo County.
"We did it!" Muller exclaimed after his victory. "We men don't deliver, but it was like giving birth to a baby. I'm sure you want to cry. It is emotional. A 900-pound pumpkin is a lotta pumpkin!"
Not far from the famous weigh-off, just a half-mile north of where Highway 92 meets Highway 1 in Half Moon Bay, lies a pumpkin patch so pure and sincere you almost expect to see Linus camped there, waiting for the Great Pumpkin to arrive. The patch is Farmer John's Pumpkin Farm, run by Muller and his wife, Eda.
To say Muller has led a full life would be putting it lightly. He has lived along the coast his entire life and farmed his way through most of it. He also has been an agricultural trade committee appointee of former President George H.W. Bush's administration and has attended trade talks in Switzerland and Chile. He has likewise traveled to Taiwan as part of his work with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's local government committee. Now he is mayor of Half Moon Bay.
But still, Muller is better known for his achievements in pumpkins than in politics.
"I can be in any state talking about environmental issues and they still want to only talk about pumpkins," he said. "I could be talking to the administrator of the U.S. EPA and they'll ask, 'So, how does a giant pumpkin grow anyway?"
Since 1947, this has been a family-run farm, with flowers being the bulk of the business until 12 years ago, when the Mullers thought it would be good to grow pumpkins so that children and their families could experience a real pumpkin farm and actually see how and where they grow.
What you won't find at Farmer John's Pumpkin Farm are the rides and carnival-like atmosphere of other patches in the area. But you will find a couple of prize-winning pumpkin growers with what is likely the widest selection of pumpkin and gourd varieties around. There you can choose from traditional orange Howdens, humongous Atlantic Giants, red Cinderellas, delicate Fairytales, white Luminas, colorful Pumpkemons and Carnivals, small Sugar Pies. The list goes on and on.
At the beginning of the harvest season, Eda and John Muller send out flyers inviting schoolchildren and others to come for an educational agricultural experience.
"At our little farm, when we do school programs, we make it educational," Muller said. "Many of the schools that come to us, come for that particular reason. We don't do jump-jump houses, or hayrides, or face paint, which is great for other businesses. But for us, we keep it strictly agriculture."
The quality of their fruit and the numerous varieties have attracted a lot of attention in recent years. Farmer John's pumpkins have been featured in magazines such as Sunset, VIA and Food and Wine. And he has supplied pumpkins to the movie and catalog industry as well. Chances are, if you've flipped through a fall catalog, you've seen at least one of his pumpkins.
But for this homegrown celebrity, there's no place like home.
"They love Farmer John here in Half Moon Bay," his wife said. "No matter where we are in town, you'll hear someone yell out, 'Hey, it's the real Farmer John.' Not John, not Mayor Muller, but always 'Farmer John.'"
Muller won't give away any secrets on exactly how he grows the gargantuan gourds he's become famous for. But he does offer tips on growing pumpkins in general: rich soil, copious amounts of water and lots of TLC—which is evident in every gourd he grows.
"Pumpkins have personalities and they really do speak to you. What could be the not-so-nice-looking pumpkin can be beautiful," Muller said. "We always tell our students that pumpkins are like people. They all come in different sizes and shapes. But on the inside, they're all the same color."
While pumpkins are the most colorful part of Farmer John's operation, he is actually a full-time, year-round farmer. His Daylight Farms supplies a wide variety of produce to several nearby restaurants, including Navio at the luxurious Ritz-Carlton resort. With a host of fresh and unique offerings at his farm, it's hard to tell if Muller has become a local favorite more for his produce or his one-of-a-kind personality.
"When I first got here, people told me I had to do a six-course meal with pumpkins. I was shocked. All I have is pumpkins? But then I got to work with Farmer John," said Navio chef Xavier Salomon. "He's such a good salesman and he's got 40 different varieties of pumpkins he's growing—very distinct characteristics to them. It really opened my eyes up to what could be done."
How about pumpkin risotto? Or pumpkin panna cotta? Or beef short ribs with pumpkin bread pudding? These are just a few of the dishes Salomon and his staff have since created. (Recipes will be posted shortly.)
So however you use it, and whether it's a small, medium or even a giant one, this time of year, we can all have our favorite pumpkin, thanks to some creative farmers and chefs carving out their own niche in the pumpkin industry.
"I think my favorite part of this job is November first," Muller said with a deep chuckle, adding, "No, I think my favorite part is the gift we can give our urban neighbors of enjoying agriculture so close to the big city."
Tracy Sellers is a reporter for California Country. She can be reached at 800-698-FARM or email@example.com.
Farmer John's Pumpkin Farm
850 N. Cabrillo Highway, Half Moon Bay
Half Moon Bay Art & Pumpkin Festival
Downtown Half Moon Bay
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Harvest cuisine in Half Moon Bay
With the cool coastal breezes and stunning views of the Pacific, travelers find the perfect getaway at the Ritz-Carlton, Half Moon Bay. The 261-room spa and golf resort has been named one of the world's best places to stay by the readers of Conde Nast Traveler and has also been on Travel+Leisure's list of the top 500 hotels in the world for four consecutive years.
So it only makes sense that visitors expect world-class cuisine here—and they aren't disappointed, thanks to the staff at the on-site restaurant, Navio. Coastal cuisine is presented in its truest and finest form. The menu reflects the restaurant's location, utilizing local produce, seafood and other ingredients to create flavorful regional cuisine.
In celebration of its reputation as the "World Pumpkin Capital," the Ritz-Carlton, Half Moon Bay, honors the region's bumper crop of orange gourds with a series of special harvest events. Autumn décor and hundreds of small pumpkins welcome visitors to the resort, who enjoy locally grown, pumpkin-themed treats and experiences throughout their stay. Guests are treated to pumpkin carving, a pumpkin festival and even a pumpkin tasting menu to celebrate the harvest. Here are some of the recipes from that menu.