The Jopson family has farmed the land in a speck of a town called Rio Oso, north of Sacramento, for four generations.
Twenty years ago, brothers Tom Jopson and David Eldon Jopson broke from the family business of growing grains to try their hand at greenhouse tomatoes. The gamble paid off. Their flavorful tomatoes were a hit across the state. Restaurants and supermarkets sought them out, because their produce was available year-round, paying the Jopsons up to $4 a pound.
“Tom Jopson says their stock-and-trade is quality — his tomatoes are always the highest-priced tomatoes in the store, he notes with a hint of pride — and producing top-quality tomatoes takes careful attention,” the publication Growing Produce wrote in a 2008 profile of the family.
Last Tuesday, the Jopson brothers, aged 62 and 60, were arrested for growing an even more profitable crop in their greenhouses: marijuana. During the raid, local, state and federal DEA agents found 2,168 pot plants on the family farm. The pot, the criminal complaint alleges, could sell for $3,500 a pound.
The Jopsons – who initially invited local law enforcement onto what they said was a legal medical marijuana growing operation – said they hoped to make enough money in one year to retire and “lead the good life,” authorities said.
The man who was going to lead them to those riches was none other than Yan Ebyam, an unusual potrepreneur who ran enormous unionized medical marijuana growing operations in Oakland. Ebyam -- whose first name stands for “yes and no” and last name is “maybe” spelled backwards -- left Oakland when the city withdrew an ambitious plan to permit four large-scale pot farms, and his growing operations fell into disarray, amidst robberies and business disputes.
In an interview with the Bay Citizen last month Ebyam implied that he was still in the medical marijuana business but refused to say where. “After last time, I think it’s better that way,” he said as he consumed an order of milk and cookies at a San Francisco coffee shop.
Ebyam was also arrested on Tuesday for his involvement with the tomato farmers – and for growing another 3,305 marijuana plants in the greenhouse of the Cal-Nevada Wholesale Florist in Sacramento. He was using the warehouse in the months “before the florist business needed the greenhouse space to grow poinsettias for the winter,” according to the criminal complaint.
The U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of California filed the complaint against the Jopson brothers, Ebyam and four others on Tuesday alleging a conspiracy to grow more than 1,000 marijuana plants. The offense can carry a 10-year prison sentence. The florist, Mary Johns, was not named in the complaint.
Joseph Barker of the the Yuba/Sutter Narcotic and Gang Enforcement Team, which investigated the case, said in an interview that the grows on the tomato farm and in the florist's warehouse weren’t legitimate medical marijuana operations, which are supposed to be not-for-profit cooperatives.
“They tried to play themselves off as a co-op, but they had no members,” said Barker. “They talked about making a huge profit, so they’re obviously not a nonprofit.”
Dave Jopson told narcotics agents in one of their visits to the farm that he and his brother were expecting to sell four crops a year for $8 million and make a $600,000 profit. Ebyam had run the operation in Rio Oso since January, according to the complaint. Recently Ebyam had a falling out and moved thousands of the plants to the Sacramento poinsettia dealer’s warehouse.
Ebyam’s business ventures in the Central Valley bore the same characteristics as his Oakland marijuana grows. Then, he teamed up with old line businesses that were scrambling for money in a down economy -- trucking, plumbing and construction companies. This time, he teamed up with farmers and florists.
“The Jopson's bought everything Ebyam said hook line sinker,” said Barker. “It’s like the old saying if it’s too good to be true it probably is.”
When agents showed up on the farm Tuesday, there was no trace of the famous tomatoes, the local paper, the Appeal-Democrat reported, adding that the property “is dotted with rusty pickups, aging cargo containers and ramshackle barns and structures” with “with rows of greenhouses, which emitted the recognizable scent of fresh marijuana.”
“They were very well-respected farmers,” said Barker. “People that have known them for years were just blown away.”
Michael Chastaine, a laywer for Tom Jopson, said “it would be reasonable to think” that the tomato farmers’ growing operation “was legal under California law and when you combine that with the Holder letter it was something that would not be prosecuted under federal law.” (In 2009, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder wrote in a memo that federal law enforcement agents should not target "individuals whose actions are in clear and unambiguous compliance with existing state laws providing for the medical use of marijuana.")
The U.S. attorney's office offered only this terse comment: "Marijuana trafficking is illegal under federal law."
Neither Ebyam nor his lawyer returned calls and texts seeking comment. Ebyam was released late Friday on $150,000 bail.
Below, watch a video on the Jopson's famous tomato business that was produced by the California Farm Bureau Federation.