October 11, 2005
The Pumpkin Patch May Be a Potemkin Village
Julia C. Mead, in a front page story that appeared in Saturday's New York Times, blew the top off of one the dirty little secrets of Halloween: the pumpkins in many U–Pik–It pumpkin patches were placed there after having been grown elsewhere.
The photo above, which accompanied the Times story, shows Hank's Pumpkintown in Water Mill, New York, where "some pumpkins... were placed... after being picked elsewhere."
I know how much it hurts to hear this.
I feel your pumpkin pain.
Here's the sad but true story.
- Psst! You Pick It, but They Grow It Someplace Else
Warning to parents: The following could be disturbing to children who, Linus-like, believe in the Great Pumpkin.
Or at least the Great U-Pik-It Pumpkin Patch.
Look closely at those so-called pumpkin patches, those flashy roadside attractions with corn mazes, wagon rides and spooky decorations that parents and elementary-school teachers herd children to each fall.
Chances are, the stems of those pumpkins are broken off and pointing defiantly upward.
Nary a pumpkin is attached to its vine, right?
Some farmers will tell you that they purposefully clip their pumpkins off the vine as a service to customers, making it easier and safer for them to select and walk off with the perfect pumpkin.
Not necessarily so.
Many of those alleged pumpkin patches are fields staged to catch a child's eye.
The pumpkins are trucked in, laid out artfully and there you have it: Curcubita pepo and its corpulent cousin, C. maxima, the equivalent of props on a Hollywood set, the better to lure pumpkin shoppers and make some bucks during the harvest season.
There is even a name for it: agri-tainment.
Not since 1948, when microfilm hidden in a hollowed-out pumpkin led to Alger Hiss's indictment on espionage charges, has there been such a whiff of pumpkin intrigue. Plenty of roadside pumpkin patches are the real deal.
And, in some cases, pumpkins are just trucked in when the home-grown supply runs low.
But for many families, that authentic pumpkin-picking experience is fake.
Case in point: Hank's Pumpkintown in Water Mill, N.Y., which attracts throngs of visitors each autumn.
On Montauk Highway, the main route through the South Fork of Long Island, Pumpkintown is the scene of frequent vehicular near-misses as cars packed with kids suddenly veer off the asphalt when the patches of orange are spotted.
Admission is $6 a child and $7 per adult just to pass through the gate.
Inside are wagon rides, hay bales to scramble over, a maze cut into the cornfield, pony rides - and wheelbarrows to fill with "pick-your-own" pumpkins.
Activities cost extra, and pumpkins are sold by the pound.
But one recent Saturday morning, hours before the happy hordes descended on Pumpkintown, farm hands were spotted in the patch, unloading pumpkins from a truck and carefully arranging them among the withered, well-stomped vines.
One worker approached the field as a work of art, placing one pumpkin on its side then stepping back to gauge the effect.
A few feet away, he stood another upright and leaned a third against its neighbor.
Two more truckloads of pumpkins sat in a barn across the highway, ready when the patch needed replenishing.
Most of the pumpkins "picked" at Pumpkintown don't grow there.
But the children on a quest for the perfect jack-o'-lantern have no idea they might as well be squeezing tomatoes in Pathmark.
"Hey, it was a lot easier for me when I just sat there on a tailgate and sold pumpkins out of the back of a truck," said Lynne Kraszewski, who, with her husband, Hank, owns Pumpkintown.
"Now, we're entertaining people for a whole day."
She said their pumpkin patch was picked clean after just two weekends and confirmed that they have a secret stash of pumpkins that are grown elsewhere in Southampton.
Mr. and Mrs. Kraszewski still also grow berries, corn, vegetables and flowers on their 400 acres, but potatoes used to be the family's livelihood.
When market prices fell in the early 1990's and then the low-carb Atkins diet craze left potato sales languishing, the Kraszewskis hit on the idea of Pumpkintown.
Their bank balance has looked better ever since.
Long Island isn't the only area where the pumpkin patches are less than authentic.
Barbara Gravesen confirmed that her husband, who operates Then Some Farms in Ridgefield, Conn., has bought more pumpkins from a supplier in Wallingford this season than in years past.
"Aha, so you're on to them," said Jessica Chittenden, a spokeswoman for the New York State Department of Agriculture.
She said she was aware of the practice not only because she'd stopped at such patches herself but also because she grew up on a farm.
"I know what goes on there," she said.
Diane Eggert, the executive director of the Farmers Direct Marketing Association, a statewide trade organization based in Syracuse, at first said that farmers only pad their patches when crop yield is low.
When told that 12 out of 14 farmers interviewed in New York, Connecticut and New Jersey admitted to doing it, and not just this year, she switched course: "Where consumer pressure is greater, the farms will run out, and they're going to need to keep the customers coming," Ms. Eggert said.
"They are business people, and they do what they have to do."
Yield does make a difference.
Meredith and Jeremy Compton, who own Peaceful Valley Orchards in Pittstown, N.J., said they had a bumper crop and didn't need to fake it.
Still, Ms. Compton, who is a consultant to Rutgers University's cooperative extension and an adviser to many farmers, said both she and a growing number of consumers were aware of the spreading incidence of sleight of pumpkin.
She often receives e-mail messages from parents concerned with authenticity.
"They ask if the pumpkins are still attached to the vine," she said.
"I have to tell them that my husband cuts them because they're impossible to get off by hand."
Alfred Finocchiaro, the manager and auctioneer at the Hightstown Wholesale Produce Auction in Hightstown, N.J., said he had moved more than 100 tons of pumpkins so far this year at prices ranging from $85 to $125 per 800-pound bin.
Farmers from New Jersey, downstate New York, Maryland and Delaware go to the auction three nights a week because it's cheaper to buy pumpkins wholesale than to grow them.
"Especially this year," said Joe Gergela, the executive director of the Long Island Farm Bureau.
Long stretches of hot, dry weather created one of the worst droughts there in 60 years and burned the blossoms right off the vines, he said.
High real estate prices and rising property taxes create a need to cut costs and generate new forms of revenue, he said.
That's the reason agri-tainment - or agricultural tourism, as it's known in government circles - is increasingly popular.
"It's ironic, because people go pick their own pumpkins and pay $3 for an ear of roasted corn when they sure wouldn't pay that in a supermarket," he said.
Ms. Compton said customers wouldn't come to her farm if she didn't offer entertainment: a corn maze, hay rides, even pig roasts.
"People would call and ask about pick-your-own pumpkins and then want to know what else we had for them to do."
So, in addition to the sheep, goats and chickens in their petting zoo, the Comptons bought a "moon bounce," an inflatable contraption for children to jump on.
It's shaped like a John Deere tractor.
"So it kind of fits in with the farm theme," she said.
October 11, 2005 at 12:01 PM | Permalink
TrackBack URL for this entry:
Listed below are links to weblogs that reference The Pumpkin Patch May Be a Potemkin Village:
» All I Really Need to Know I Learned at the Pumpkin Patch from Everything And Nothing
1. Things aren't always what they seem. 2. Variety is the spice of life. 3. Choose in haste, repent at your leisure. 4. Learn something new every day. 5. Always take time to laugh. 6. Sugar makes everything taste [Read More]
Tracked on Oct 11, 2005 3:25:40 PM
The comments to this entry are closed.