Priming the Pumpkin : Farmers Scramble to Protect Crop Ripened Early by Heat


Six men rode slowly through a field off Moorpark Road on Wednesday, hiding pumpkins.


They were working against the sun, covering mounds of harvested pumpkins with corn stalks balanced to form gold-green tepees. If left exposed, the pumpkins could rot.

With Halloween a month away, pumpkins across Ventura County are ready for harvest. A little too ready, in some cases. The summer’s warm weather has caused some to mature too quickly.

“If you’re in the inland areas, you’d better have some cover over them, because they will burn,” said J. Link Leavens, whose family farms about 50 acres of pumpkins around Santa Paula and Ventura.


Farmers hide the pumpkins under their own thick, leafy vines. Or they use the corn stalks for shelter as a month of intensive harvesting begins.

Ventura County’s pumpkin crop--worth just $422,000 last year--is small compared to the multimillion-dollar avocado and citrus harvests. But during October, the bright orange gourd becomes the mainstay of roadside produce stands, drawing Los Angeles shoppers who prowl the countryside in search of the perfect jack-o-lantern.

Before the end of the month, most of the county’s 145 acres of pumpkins will be harvested and sold.

“It’s all Halloween-related,” Leavens said. “Pumpkins are not worth very much on the first of November.”


This year, the gourds matured early throughout California, egged on by steady sunshine and multiple heat waves. Typically planted in mid-June, the pumpkin crop is often not harvested until mid-October.

David McGrath, who runs the McGrath Street Pumpkin Patch in Ventura with his wife, Beth, said the hot weather and the problems it brought forced him to cut some pumpkins from the vine before they had fully ripened to their bright orange hue.


“You’d rather have them vine-ripened, but if you don’t cut with the problems coming on, you’re going to lose the pumpkins anyway,” he said.


Last year’s weather posed its own problems for growers. The high number of foggy days kept some pumpkins from maturing on time, Leavens said.

Like most pumpkin farmers, McGrath grows many varieties, and some have thrived this year. Workers are already bringing in truckloads of pumpkins from his fields in east Ventura, lining up gourds the size of beach balls next to his shuttered produce stand.

Outside Santa Paula, the Faulkner Farm Pumpkin Patch creates an entire seasonal business around pumpkins--letting shoppers wander through the fields to find the right gourd, as well as offering hay rides and farm demonstrations.

Co-owner Lin Ayers said the business draws about 30,000 people each year, many from Los Angeles.


Come November, pumpkin season will end. Some of the stands will close for business while others turn to peddling other goods.


McGrath said the pumpkins he can’t sell will go to livestock producers for feed or charities for food. “I’m happy to give it to them if they can use it,” he said.