Fall means cooler weather, leaves falling off trees and of course, pumpkins. They are the unofficial mascot for autumn and whether you like pumpkin spice or not, just about everyone can agree they are significant to this season. If you need any more proof, just ask Charlie Brown and his gang.
For Jason and Lindsey Pyle of Floydada, Texas, pumpkins are big business. Their farm, known as Pumpkin Pyle, encompasses 750 acres of farm ground literally crawling with all types of pumpkins. A three-generation operation, Pumpkin Pyle, was started in 1991 by Jason, then 17, along with his father and grandfather.
“The last few years, my parents have started to cut back so we’ve added Matthew Rainwater and his wife, Kember, to our operation,” Pyle said. “The great thing about our business is when people call they’re really talking to an owner, whether they get ahold of me, Lindsey, Matt, Kember or my parents.”
Most pumpkin set-ups are not going to be planting at this volume for a number of reasons including time, expense and unpredictability of the weather and market. Pyle says it also takes a significant time period to develop a customer base.
“It takes a long time to get your name out there and become a producer people want to buy from,” Pyle confessed. “A lot of people get in it and after two years think this is terrible and they’re hard to sell. And it is if you don’t know where to sell. You can’t just be in it for three or four years and stop. When I started I used to have to look for people to buy from me and now they come to me.”
Pumpkin Pyle raises 70 to 80 different varieties of pumpkins. They grow anything from Cinderella pumpkins to Big Macs, which can weigh 200 pounds, to the minis that fit in the palm of your hand.
“We also grow Indian corn, gourds, squash, corn and wheat bundles and hay bales,” Pyle added. “Basically I’m a one stop shop for pumpkin patches. I’m catering to my customers because they need all this stuff for their pumpkins patches and they don’t want to have to go to six different places to get what they need.”
Pumpkin Pyle supplies a lot of pumpkin patches in the Dallas and Oklahoma City areas. The operation also sells to H-E-B and United Supermarkets as well as the Dallas Arboretum and Botanical Gardens and Calloway’s Nursery, also in the Dallas area.
“It’s pretty neat to see the same customers that you’ve had for a long time and they keep coming back year after year,” Pyle said. “Most of my customers have been with me for a long time and we’ve grown together.”
The largest majority of the crop goes to Oklahoma City and Dallas. But some of Pyle’s pumpkins end up in Mississippi, Arkansas and Louisiana. Customers will order specific quantities of each variety and a truck will be sent to pick up the order where it is hand-selected and loaded onto a semi.
But a lot of work is put in before a pumpkin can light-up a porch on Halloween night. Pyle says they usually start planting around May, with some of the bigger varieties being sown around May 15 to 20. Eventually more varieties are planted around June 10 to 15.
“We stage them so they last longer through the season and they’re fresh for harvesting,” Pyle explained. “Also some of our customers want them really early and some, like the pumpkin patches, want them later. It just kind of depends who you’re selling to.”
When Pyle is not elbow deep in pumpkin season, he farms 3,000 acres of cotton with his father. The cotton production is a great crop rotation to go back and forth with the pumpkins. He says they usually go from cotton on into harvesting the pumpkins.
One aspect Pyle reiterates is the intense labor involved in pumpkin harvesting. Unbelievably, all 750 acres of pumpkins have to be hand harvested and culled.
“We might have 100 to 150 employees at one time,” Pyle estimated. “My labor is very expensive and demanding. I seldom see my house during the daylight if it’s harvest time.”
Pyle says workers will go through and clip the pumpkins off the vine and set them in rows to be culled through. Then they take a tractor along the rows and load them into bins. Then everything is shipped to the warehouses in town.
Pyle gave examples for why they might cull a pumpkin—scars, discoloration, rotten spots or damage from animals. And Pyle even has an alternative use for pumpkins that never get a chance to be carved into a jack-o-lantern or cooked into a pie.
“A lot of times I’ll feed the rejected pumpkins to my cows,” he said. “They love them!”
When selecting a pumpkin at a grocery store they often weigh several pounds, but imagine multiple fields of pumpkins. That poundage adds up quickly.
“Every variety is a little different, some of the smaller to medium varieties might make 40,000 to 50,000 pounds per acre and larger varieties could be anywhere from 20,000 to 40,000 pounds per acre, it just kind of depends on the weather and how much disease you’ve had that weeds out more of the crop.”
Pyle says the chemicals to prevent these diseases are extremely expensive because they are not widely used. Plus, pumpkin crops have to be sprayed aerially because of the vines in the fields.
“We do have insect problems and diseases like powdery mildew,” Pyle explained. “We are pretty much on a schedule to keep up with the spraying seven to eight times a year at least. But with pumpkins it’s more preventative. Once you have it, it’s too late.”
Additionally, rainfall can propagate a lot of the disease problems.
“Pumpkins really need dryer weather and they don’t like standing water which sets them up for diseases,” he said. “We get probably 60 days of selling a pumpkin and that’s it. And those days become limited because every day we get a rain, that’s one day you can’t pick. We’re at the mercy of the weather. And there’s only so much we can harvest in one day. Plus much of our fields are planted on drip irrigation so if we tried to get into the field to pick we could tear up our irrigation system.”
By Oct. 20, Pyle is just about done harvesting so even though his crops recently received major quantities of rain, harvest was mostly complete and crops were unaffected.
One element that will always affect a producer like Pyle, is the number of pumpkin proponents who can’t make it through fall without welcoming a pumpkin or two into their home by carving a Jack-o-lantern, setting a pumpkin on their front porch or making a pumpkin pie. They have made pumpkins the star of fall and farmers will continue to satisfy those needs.
Lacey Newlin can be reached at email@example.com.