Monday, October 16, 2006


Picky the Pumpky

This weekend, once we determined that I was safely ambulatory, we took The Boy and The Girl pumpkin picking. We have a little song that goes with it – picky the pumpky, the pumpky the picky – and a ritual we follow every year.

We pick a weekend in mid- to late-October and make the trek to a working farm near the condo in which The Wife and I lived when we first got married. The farm makes most of its money from a sort of farm tourism, rather than, say, crops or livestock. It has a large pumpkin patch, and it offers hayrides out to the patch on big rickety metal carts with haybales for seats, pulled by huge tractors. Hayride tickets are four bucks a pop. Then we disembark in the patch and, using a top-secret algorithm which I am not at liberty to disclose, pick the two best pumpkins. We catch another hayride back, whereupon we get the pumpkins weighed and pay for them. (No, the pumpkins aren't included in the hayride price. Did I mention it's a revenue builder?) There's also a hay maze, a few cute props for photos with the kids, and lots of food and knickknacks for sale. (Did I mention it's a revenue raiser?)

It's a fun outing, and this year was particularly good because it wasn't too wet or too cold. (There have been years in which each step in the pumpkin patch landed with a disheartening squish.) The jury is still out on whether The Girl will let her pumpkin be carved; when he was her age, The Boy wouldn't let me come near his pumpkin with the knife, for fear of hurting it.

The Critical Thinking Academic in me sees all sorts of issues with the pumpkin ritual. If farms in this area have become, economically speaking, more about entertainment than about food,* then why are they entitled to such dramatically preferential property tax treatment? Or subsidies? And what's with the romanticization of the rustic in the first place? The guy taking tickets at the hayride stand was in communication with the tractor drivers via cell phone. Is that how our ancestors did it? Is it really important for The Boy and The Girl to experience farm life, given that we're several generations removed from it? Wasn't the point of the twentieth century to liberate us from farm life? Besides, why do we automatically give cultural deference to people who accept staggeringly huge public subsidies, and then vote Republican to get tough on welfare? Who do these people think they are? Isn't the whole 'open space' fetish really just a way to keep low-income people out of the suburbs? A few years ago the teenager taking tickets was reading one of the Left Behind novels. I'm supposed to defer to that? Since when does mucking around in manure convey deep insight? Wouldn't the first insight be “I don't like mucking around in manure”? That was certainly my experience with the ice factory.

But then I tell my Critical Thinking Academic side to take a deep breath and put a sock in it. The hayride is fun, being outdoors with the kids is a blast, the kids LOVE picking their own pumpkins, the people-watching is outstanding (this year's highlights: an 80-ish year old woman who sounded like she spent the last 75 years ingesting nothing but cigarettes and whiskey, yelling “toodles!”; and a young boy holding up a piece of hay and announcing proudly “this is wheat. It's what corn comes from!”), the parts of the farm that don't smell like manure smell good, and there's something fun about an annual tradition. TB and TG, I hope, will remember the picky the pumpky trips fondly as they get older. There's something to be said for historical continuity, even if you sometimes have to choose not to look too deeply into the hay maze.

* Eventually, most of the fields yield clusters of four-bedroom colonials arranged around cul-de-sacs, which I believe is French for 'crop circles.'

Our pumpkin "picking" was a bit disappointing this year. At some friends' suggestion we went to a farm that turned out to be largely tourist trap with revenue-generating activities. They charged $13 per person admission (on the other hand, the hayride was "free"). I was disappointed with the commercialism of it, and on top of all that, "picking" the pumpkins consisted of selecting them from the pile at the overpriced tchochki market. God only knows where the pumpkins were actually grown.

On the other hand, Lyra enjoyed all the activities, including half a dozen very big slides, a pony ride, a goat petting zoo, pettable cows, and other animals for viewing, including chickens, turkeys, and even newborn piglets. She had a blast and is still talking about how much fun it was.
Our fall ritual was apple picking, at a working apple farm that had some of the commercial revenue enhancers that you're talking about, but not too many. No admission charge, anyway. We'd pick and weigh and stow the apples in the car, then crowd into their market stand for fresh fried cakes (which you got hot out of the oil), and fresh cider (which they squeezed in front of you in a huge old cider press). I never let my kids eat a lot of crap, but those fried cakes were heavenly with cider and sun and blue skies and fresh apples.
I actually think it's important for kids to have some vague notion as to where their food comes from - even if it a distorted somewhat contrived one. I plan to take my little one picking all sorts of fruit at the u-pick farms around here (before they get swallowed up into 500K condos). I also plan to teach them how to can the fruit and make pie, jam, and applesauce - not because it's necessary but because it's fun (and eating home canned apricots in the middle of December is - well - heavenly.)

The sensory experience of visiting a farm is probably the whole point of the thing. The last day before my sister went off to college she got tired of packing boxes and we went and picked apples. It was breezy and the wind picked up the scent of the ripe fruit as it blew through the orchard. Now, the scent of apples always makes me think of her and that last day we had her at home.
Slate just had an interesting, somewhat similar article about apple-picking that might interest you.
If your kids opt for carving, cover the cut surfaces of the jack-o-lantern face with petroleum jelly to prevent the pumpkin meat from shriveling up before Halloween.
We did both apple picking and pumpkin picking (well, selecting) last weekend on the Canadian Thanksgiving weekend. I think we managed to get local farmers for the pumpkins, and the orchard is a thing of beauty in a tiny town about 45 minutes south of the city.

I agree with the previous commenters, that it's about the sensory experience, and knowing that food doesn't fall into existence at the grocery store doesn't hurt. Really, though, it's all about getting the hell out of the house for two hours. That, and the fact that the kids will always remember the excursions as one of the myriad ways we tortured them in their formative years.
I guess since we are sharing, the Pookie, Lovely Wife and I drive the 5 miles or so to my inlaws property and, turning off the electric-shoo-deer fence, trudge out the pumpkins Pookie grew.

I think we miss out, though, on the wagon rides and such.

Side note, though, even the year we were apartment-bound in Boston, we grew some small produce on the balcony. If we were there longer, I think we would have tried a pumpkin plant in a pot.
I'm with Vicki; some of my happiest memories are of fall days exactly as she describes them. (We even recently switched orchards because the old one was getting a little too touristy.) Plus, fresh-picked apples just can't be beat.

On a more serious economic note, value-added services like these (plus farmers markets, niche products like artisanal cheese, etc.) are the only thing keeping these farms going at all. I grew up next to a dairy farm, and it is extremely hard work for the money you make. Pretty much anything else is a better economic deal, which is why you don't see too many young farmers in the east unless they are into boutique or organic farming in a big way. Our current farming friends are doing subsistence-plus, rather than trying to make a real living at it, and even they are sticking with pastured eggs and specialty herbs and lettuces.

The worst problem, Tony (my childhood farmer neighbor) said, is that you have to work hurt. You may be limping like hell because you got kicked yesterday, but those cows are not going to milk themselves, and you can't leave a dairy cow unmilked. Likewise, if it's hot weather and the lettuce has to be picked fast before it goes bitter, you go out there and pick unless you literally can't stand up.

Me, I like living in an area with farms, rather than wall-to-wall housing developments. So, if I want that, I have to accept that the farmers need an inducement to not sell off their farms for several million bucks and retire to Florida. Corn mazes and moderate agricultural tax subsidies seem a small price to pay.
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