Pumpkin Harvest in Lancaster County

October 5, 2017

Written by Art Petrosemolo

They used to be just orange and came in two sizes: big and small. Today pumpkins, especially here in Lancaster County, come in a variety of sizes, shapes and colors with names like Cotton Candy, Amish Splendor, Gray Ghost, Blue Lakota and Long Island Cheese. Designer white pumpkins, hot in 2016, continue to be popular.

Pumpkins, part of the Cucurbita or gourd family, were brought to Europe by explorers in the age of discovery. They can and are grown on farms as a cash crop and in backyards to sell on homemade stands with cardboard signs. They can be sold directly from farm to wholesalers or be part of huge auctions at sites like Leola Produce Auction. At the auction, 100,000 pumpkins can be sold in four hours, with sizes ranging from pumpkins that fit in your palm to pumpkins that take a forklift to move.

It doesn’t end with Halloween, either. Pumpkins continue to be sold as decoration and as a source for some great pumpkin pies right through November, before they are replaced with snowmen and Christmas decorations.

So how and why am I so interested in pumpkins? Early in the spring I met Ruth and Samuel Lapp at their farm in Paradise at the start of the strawberry season when I was researching the Amish In-Home Dinners story for the Ephrata Review.  When I learned that the Lapp’s use a strawberry plant that goes into the ground in the fall and delivers fruit in the spring and is then plowed under, I wondered what went into that space in June. Well, Ruth told me, it would be pumpkins as they too were a cash crop and could be grown for September harvest.

Well, if the Lapp’s were planting pumpkins to sell wholesale, their neighbors and neighbors’ neighbors as well as farmers across the county were all doing the same.

I watched fields across the county begin to show orange fruit as August wound down and tobacco turned gold and was harvested. And suddenly we were in the pumpkin season.

I pitched the editors of the Lititz Record and the Ephrata Review about a photo spread on the pumpkin industry and they were receptive. So suddenly, I was stopping by the side of two-lane roads off the beaten track taking photos of pumpkins with necks, tiny pumpkins or giant pumpkins in people’s front yards. And as the farm stands on the state roads that crisscross the County began to fill up with gourds, mums and pumpkins, I was busy with my camera.

I visited friend John Lapp of Genuine Flowers off of North Railroad Avenue and found his storage area filled with bins of pumpkins that he sells retail at a greenhouse at Shady Maple Smorgasbord in East Earl. John said if I wanted to really see pumpkins I had to go to Leola Produce Auction on Brethren Church Road at the end of September or early October.

Well, I visited the auction with John the last week of September and I was just about overwhelmed. We learned they had been accepting pumpkins from the previous day until 8pm and again early on the Wednesday auction day. By 8am, there were 1500 bins stored under cover and outside with every imaginable size, color and shape of pumpkin. Some 100 or so local and regional buyers were there, ready to bid. Delivery trucks sat ready and open at the loading docks with drivers sitting on fork lifts, ready to move pallets and bins.

The auction started promptly at 8:30am and a team of auctioneers with portable PA equipment alternated selling lots every few minutes. The sale was continuous.

Pumpkins are actually sold by the piece, in bins at Leola. So, bidding is per pumpkin and the buyer knows how many pumpkins are in a bin….as low as 10 for giants, usually 35-40 for normal size and literally hundreds for the minis. The bidding is over quickly, in less than a minute. The buyer’s number is put on the bin and his account is charged for the sale.

As the auctioneer moves down the line continuing the sale, fork-lift drivers are maneuvering their vehicles to get the bins onto produce trucks. It’s quick and fascinating to watch.

In the direct sale of pumpkins from farms to wholesalers, the pumpkins are sold by weight – usually at $.20/a pound in 2017 and 18-wheel trucks get filled with 40,000 pounds and move the pumpkins North-South-East or West.

I thought the season came to an abrupt end on Halloween by John Lapp tells me no, pumpkins are bought here through November for decorations and also to be used to make thousands and thousands of pumpkin pies.

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