Pumpkin growers chase seasonal gold rush
Jason Cundiff is part of a harvest race going on in a West Bottoms pumpkin patch.
The weather is somewhat involved in the race. The pumpkins in the 40-acre field Cundiff is helping landowner John Abel harvest need to be in by the time the first frost puts a prompt end to the growing season.
But the real concern is marketing potential. As gold as their rinds are now, the value of pumpkins plummets to near nothing after Halloween.
But Monday with the temperatures in the low 80s, frost was far from Cundiff's mind as the Eudora man harvested 250 pumpkins. There's been no fancy modern machine invented to harvest pumpkins. It remains a hands-on job with plenty of stoop labor.
Sweat beaded on his face as Cundiff went about the tedious work of cutting the pumpkins from the vine and carried the 20-pound orbs two at a time to a waiting pickup to load them 10 layers high.
"It can be hard work on these warm days," he said, adding that a summer of work weeding and fertilizing went into the patch.
The pumpkins would be sold for $2 each to a Lawrence grocery store, which would sell them all for a uniform price. Because of that, Cundiff said, the store wanted pumpkins of the same size.
Cundiff said he and Abel had been harvesting the pumpkins since early September and want to wrap it up in the next two to two-and-a-half weeks. But there still are plenty of pumpkins dotting the patch and many of the vines still are producing.
Other customers, like Zimmerman's Kill Creek Farm and the Gardner Pumpkin Patch, aren't quite so picky, Cundiff said, and will accept a greater variety.
"We'll take all sizes," said Darrel Zimmerman, who bought 400 "Jack O' Lantern pumpkins from Abel last week for the start of Kill Creek Farm's annual monthlong pumpkinfest.
Like the Abels, the Zimmerman family were Kansas River Bottom farmers and used to grow pumpkins.
"I decided to let John do it. He's younger and stronger than I am," Zimmerman said.
Zimmerman and Cundiff agree the bottomland provided a great growing ground for pumpkins.
"This sandy soil is as good as any in the world for growing pumpkins," Cundiff said.
The Kaw Valley also is home to large numbers of deer, which smash the pumpkins gourds to get to the pulp inside, Cundiff said. But another type of visitor to the fields account for greater losses, he said.
"People think there are so many pumpkins, it won't hurt if they take one," he said. "But it's a lot of work for people just to come out and take them out of your field."
Cundiff feared some pumpkin thefts might be more organized. On a recent afternoon, he spotted a pickup truck with a trailer slowly rolling by the field before stopping to look over the field. Seeing him, it drove off, he said.
"I don't know if they were meaning to take pumpkins or not, but they sure looked it over pretty good," he said.
Most of the pumpkins in the patch will be ornamentation for lawns and porches, many carved to Jack O' Lanterns. Few are destined to fill pies. Commercial pie filling is actually made from a grey squash and not the iconic orange pumpkin, Cundiff said.
Old pumpkin hand Zimmerman appreciates the work involved in preparing a pie from a field pumpkin.
"People ask me what pumpkin makes the best pie," he said. "I tell them 'Libby's.'"