Western innovator: Pumpkins share bounty on coast
Lifelong farmer balances different crops, hosts urban consumers
By JULIA HOLLISTER
For the Capital Press
HALF MOON BAY, Calif. -- Bob Marsh believes that farmers and ranchers in coastal San Mateo County need to have a say about open space and keeping it in agriculture.
"Our coast is isolated and farm businesses are moving out," he said, looking east at the barren hills of the Skyline Range. "We have to go to either Salinas or Stockton to get machine parts. There are no tractor dealerships here anymore."
He is a fourth-generation farmer and cattleman who remembers when the hills were all planted to crops or used for cattle pasture.
The biggest challenge facing those of us who are in agriculture is the availability of farm labor," he said. "In addition, rules and regulations continue to mount."
Marsh is one of the largest pumpkin growers on the coast and this time of year his farm includes a hay bale climbing tower, acres of bright orange pumpkins and assorted chickens, turkeys and baby goats.
He laughs that he began growing pumpkins when he was in the eighth grade. His father took the rumble seat out of his Ford Model T and stocked it with his son's pumpkins. The enterprising youngster sold them on the side of Highway 1 for 5 or 10 cents each.
Farm visits during the fall first began in 1960 when urban schoolchildren arrived by the busload to run in the fields and chose the perfect pumpkin to take home.
"This is my favorite time of year because I love seeing children visit a farm for the first time and really see where crops are grown," he said. "I love the questions, too. Last week a woman looked at one of the giant pumpkins and asked if it came from Oregon."
The Marsh operation is a recycling project on a large scale. When the pumpkin season is over -- after Halloween and before the rains arrive -- he feeds the leftover pumpkins and hay to the cattle that graze across the highway near the ocean.
Growing pumpkins is not easy. There are threats from deer, which can wipe out an entire crop, and ravens and starlings feast on vegetables.
Mountain lions have killed some of his animals.
Marsh is also on the San Mateo Farm Bureau board of directors and the San Mateo County Agriculture Advisory Committee that reports to the county Board of Supervisors on ag issues.
"Bob has obviously lived around here for many years and is very knowledgeable about agriculture in the county," said San Mateo Farm Bureau executive director Bill Gass. "He knows every ranch, their owners' past and present and county history. He also knows what crops work best in the area and the trends that come and go."
Marsh is past president of the county Farm Bureau and is active with the FFA and 4-H kids.
"He regularly contributes to civic events and whenever I have a question, I call Bob," Gass said.
Marsh admits there have been big changes in agriculture but life on the California coast is paradise.
"Farming is tough but I'm the 'half-full glass' guy," he said. "Farming is what I want to do. I also believe that it's always going to be better next year."
Hometown: Half Moon Bay, Calif.
Family: Wife, Julia, two grown children, two grandchildren
Occupation: Farmer and cattleman
Quote: "The San Mateo County Coastside agriculture is somewhat isolated from the rest of the state. But, I hope with continued effort from interested, dedicated people there will be an opportunity for our children and grandchildren to continue in the agricultural field."