Monday, October 10, 2005

Dealing In Orange Colored Gold

It all started rather innocently when my brother and I planted a few hills of pumpkins for our Halloween carving pleasure and had a bumper crop. So we loaded up a half pickup load of "extra" pumpkins and drove to the nearest grocery store some thirty miles away. Without hesitating, they paid us in cash (what at the time I thought was an obscene amount of money) for the pumpkins and asked us if we would raise more for them next year. We agreed. The following year we planted about twenty hills of pumpkins and the year after that three times the number. By then, we had several people from the neighboring counties who ran roadside stands who were buying our pumpkins. We also expanded into sweet corn and ornamentals like Indian corn and gourds but they never brought in the cash revenue like the pumpkins did.

Growing and selling pumpkins was a lot of work. Spring began with the planting of the seeds into leftover pieces of ground that didn't fit into our father's farm program plan. At first it was done by hand but within four years we had expanded to planting five acres and we did it with the farm planter after all the other rows crops had been planted. The first month or so were spent in the futile job of weeding. Back then before Walkmans were an everyday item, I would strap a battery operated ghetto blaster to my back and my brother and I would head out for the day with a pair of long handled hoes. It was hard work but we never minded too much because we knew that it would be worth it in the fall. Weeding season ended when the vines covered the ground and we could no longer easily walk between the rows. Later on when we had expanded to just around ten acres of pumpkins, we took to spraying and using more conventional tillage equipment but even these didn't eliminate the weeds. Pumpkins are broadleaf plants along with most common weeds and so the chemicals couldn't rid the patch of them. Fortunately, Mother Nature always unleashed her most effective weed control method, frost, in the fall and the weeds would all shrivel up and die before harvest season got under full swing.

In the early days, harvest time meant picking the pumpkins, cleaning them off with a garden hose and burlap sacks and taking them into town. But as we got bigger and known for our quality pumpkins, buyers were driving to us. We would usually head out the afternoon before a vendor arrived and would windrow pumpkins. I would take a twenty-foot swath on one side and my brother the same amount on the other and we would pick all good pumpkins and pile them in a heaped row in the middle. We would continue down through the patch until we had enough to fill whatever trailer the buyer would bring. So when the buyer arrived the next day, all they would have to do is drive down along the windrow of pumpkins as they were loaded. Unlike the early days, we changed our pricing structure so that are pumpkins were priced by the pound and not each. We charged one price for cleaned pumpkins and another for as they were straight out of the field. Most people took them straight out of the field and as with all customers, my brother and I offered our services for loading up the pumpkins included in the price. Towards the end of our ten year business, we were selling pumpkins by the semi load which was way more than two kids could get ready for after getting home from school and doing all our homework. We made deals with local clubs at school looking to raise money for trips or uniforms, etc. We would give them a couple hundred dollars if a certain number of kids would show up after school and help windrow pumpkins for several hours or another amount of money if they helped load a semi. It was cheaper than hiring grownup individuals and the school clubs were always thankful for the money.

The only reason that we were able to expand from a half pickup load a pumpkins a years to selling them by the semi load was because we kept our quality high. My brother and I quickly learned that big thick stems or jack-o-lantern handles were very desirable. From our first years, we quickly learned which varieties had this desired characteristic and which didn't and only planted those that had them. That variety also had thick shells and was deep orange in color, which made them a classic pumpkin for carving. The one drawback was that the seeds were more expensive but in the long run the payout more than compensated. Because the pumpkins had to survive a long bumpy ride to the store with their handles intact so that they could be sold, we developed a technique of stacking them so that they didn't shift so much and shear them off. Several suppliers requested that either my brother or I be the ones to actually stack them in the trailer or semi because they could expect more undamaged product reaching their final destination. Who wants to buy a pumpkin without a nice handle? We also through careful monitoring and a little bit of luck, were able to control the squash beetles which like to eat the skins of pumpkins and squash leaving behind a rough looking ugly scar across the face. Because our pumpkins were blemish free, we were able to attract a large client base.

All vehicles had to make a mandatory stop at the local scales in town before coming out to the farm and get their vehicle weighed empty. After they were loaded, my brother and I would follow them into town and after they were weighed full, write up a bill and settle it, mostly in cash. We would drive back home with obscene wads of cash in our pockets and promptly deposit it in a bag that our mother kept for that purpose. The first wads always went to my parents to pay for the loan that we would take every spring for seeds and chemicals. We traded our labor for ground and equipment rental so that never had to come out of the till. When all our debts were paid and we were in the black, our mother would take the money with her when she went into town and divide it between our two savings accounts. Every six months, that money would be rolled into maturing Certificates of Deposit drawing interest to be used to pay for our eventual college education. It never really hit me how important that money way until the day I graduated from college with not a dime owed and around $140 and change left over in the CD. My brother did the same. With the majority of my peers (who also had to pay their way through college) graduating with huge debt loads, I felt very fortunate indeed.

The tenth and final year was the only year we lost money. It had been a dry summer causing the pumpkins to ripen prematurely and by early August, they were all ready to be picked. Unfortunately by the first of October when everyone wanted to buy them, most had turned into circles of orange mush. We were able to salvage enough for the Forest Craft Festival that year and the proceeds from that paid for the lion’s share of our debt. We didn't quite raising pumpkins because of that crop failure but because I was almost eighteen at the time and would be heading off to college in the fall a couple months before harvest season would begin. I wanted to put my hard earned dollars to use by studying hard at college and I knew that I wouldn't be able to focus and run a business at the same time. My brother also opted out knowing that running it was a lot of work for two people and for one it would be almost impossible. As our customers came to scavenge what they could from our ruined crop, we thanked them for the business and told them that it would be our last year. In a way, the crop failure and the beginning of college was a blessing in disguise. The owner of the scales, who always witnessed the cash transactions of our business, decided that he was going to get in the pumpkin business along with others in the nearby community. Where we were the only grower in a large several county area, the following years would have a surplus of growers that flooded the market.

This story wouldn't be complete without one additional splurb that I kept secret from my parents and even my brother (and business partner) all these years. My parents always worried that the location of our pumpkin patch would fall into the wrong hands and that the hoodlums of our school would loot it. We did see evidence a couple times of people who had been into the patch and dropped one or two while climbing over the fence, but never any mass thefts of merchandise. The reason for this was because early on, I made a deal. I passed the word on that if they respected our patch, a few days before Halloween when most of our sales had stopped, I would give them the patch location, how to get there and what times to best avoid my parents attention. On one occasion, I even snuck out of the house and help them load up several stock trailers full of pumpkins. Most of the pumpkins ended up in the lawns of the high school teachers or smashed to bits on Main Street of Milton where we went to high school. Once, the sheriffs deputy at the time asked me if I was missing any pumpkins to which I honestly told him that I hadn't seen or heard a thing in our patch but did see some tire tracks that weren't ours. (Fortunately it wasn't the same year that I helped!) I told him that I wouldn't be pressing charges should he catch the culprits since our selling season was pretty much over anyway. The one year I did help load them up (aiding and abetting criminals), I also hitched a ride into town and helped.... er.... unload them onto some lawns of the teaching type, the lawn of the parents of a girl whom at the time I had a crush on, (I know, what a weird way to display affection) and also applied a very liberal coating (about five trailer loads) to main street of Milton. After about an hour of running over them and doing multi-circle donuts in the greasy slime left behind, the same sheriff's deputy who had questioned me the year before chased us off (fortunately he didn't identify me) and then proceeded, much to our hidden-from-view amusement, to do multi-circle donuts with the patrol car. It took a front-end loader, a dump truck and lots of passes with the street cleaner to clean up the mess and to this day, it has never been repeated. Coincidently, mass quantities of pumpkins stopped appearing in town the same time we quit raising pumpkins.

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