NEW HAVEN – Someday the round orange globe will sit on someone’s porch, greeting trick-or-treaters.
Right now, the pumpkin is my quarry. And I’m not about to let the prickly stem or the worms that might be hiding underneath it deter me.
I didn’t know what to expect when I joined the crew picking pumpkins for an afternoon at Ralph Kurtz’s farm northeast of Fort Wayne. But this was nothing like my childhood memories of selecting a perfectly rounded pumpkin during a fall farm visit.
Kurtz Enterprise’s goal is to scour the field picking every ripe pumpkin. Kurtz and the crew – about 15 teenagers that day – eventually will harvest 30 acres of pumpkins this year. They can pick as many as 15 to 18 tons in a 2 1/2 -hour afternoon shift.
When we arrived in the field, the equipment was ready to go. About half of the crew jumped onto a wagon, where they would stack the picked pumpkins in wooden crates. The others lined up behind the conveyor belt that jutted out of the wagon’s side. A system of two conveyor belts carried the pumpkins to the stackers.
Kurtz handed me a pair of gloves and directed me to a spot behind the protruding conveyor belt. My new boss instructed me to pick up any ripe pumpkins in front of me, dust them off and set them on the conveyor belt. Then he dashed off to drive the tractor pulling this contraption, leaving me to wonder what I had gotten myself into.
I was nervous about accidentally bruising, smashing or otherwise harming Kurtz’s merchandise. After all, he sells the pumpkins for $1 to $6, depending on the size, at his farm stand on Indiana 37. If I accidentally dropped a pumpkin and it broke into pieces, he wouldn’t be able to sell it. And if I bruised a pumpkin, I was concerned no customer would buy it. But before I had much time to worry, the tractor started lurching across the field.
My world narrowed to the foot-long expanse in front of me, as I followed the moving conveyor belt and scanned the ground beneath it for a glimpse of orange. Luckily, the pumpkins were fairly easy to lift because the crew had cut them off the vines the previous day.
I initially tried to brush every speck of dirt off each pumpkin but quickly realized from watching my co-workers that I didn’t need to be so thorough. And I set the pumpkins down gingerly on the conveyor belt to avoid bruising them. That also wasn’t necessary because the vegetables can withstand this handling, Kurtz told me later.
A boy to my right warned me to watch out for slugs, worms and mice. I laughed, hoping he was teasing the city slicker.
No such luck. Some of the pumpkins I lifted were covering wriggling worms. Most of the worms stayed on the ground, but the occasional worm or slug clung to a pumpkin’s side. After recoiling for a moment, I remembered I could easily brush the slimy creatures away with my gloved hands. If only I had gloves for killing spiders at home.
The gloves were actually intended to protect my hands from the pumpkins’ prickly stems and vines. They did such a good job that it took me about 20 minutes to realize the nettles were even there. This, too, was not something I recalled from childhood Halloweens. Most nettles fall off before the pumpkins ever reach the consumer, Kurtz said.
But crawly creatures, prickly vines and a few weeds that were taller than me proved to be minor nuisances. I fell into a rhythm pretty quickly and managed to lift some hefty pumpkins on my own, even though my fellow crew members wanted to help me lift the heaviest ones. A single pumpkin can weigh as much as 35 pounds, Kurtz said. He guessed the crew picked about 10 tons the afternoon I visited.
Dirt clung to our arms and faces, and I was sweating in the afternoon sun by the time we finished a pass through the field, which was about a third of a mile long. I certainly would have earned my minimum-wage salary if Kurtz had been paying me.
Picking pumpkins, although a good workout for the biceps and triceps, is fairly mindless. After I had that down, 16-year-old Derek “Blu” Sowers suggested I jump into the wagon and learn how to stack pumpkins.
As quickly as the pickers set pumpkins on the conveyor belt, the stackers must fit the round and oblong vegetables into wooden boxes. This three-dimensional Tetris game was a lot harder than it looked, especially since I was standing in the box as I tried to fill it. I had trouble finding the right size pumpkins to fill gaps, and the crew members handed me pumpkins faster than I could find a place for them.
Sowers quickly covered the bottom of his box with pumpkins and jumped onto footholds in the crate’s sides to put down another layer. I found it impossible to balance this way while holding a heavy pumpkin, so I settled for watching the experts. This was Sowers’ first season on the crew, but he had already mastered the art of clambering around the crate.
The crew members even managed to discuss plans for the upcoming weekend, recent fall festivals and their favorite fast food restaurants while they filled the crates. Jessika Wiles, 16, said the camaraderie was her favorite part of the job, even after her co-workers doused her with water during a break.
Crew members celebrated the end of the shift with a few more water ambushes. Sowers poured water on Wiles, then splashed a few drops on my back.
“Now you’re one of us,” he said.