- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 24, 2002

It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown.Well, it may not be: There is only one Great Pumpkin, after all. But plenty of great pumpkins are ripe for the picking in various sizes, shapes and colors at local pumpkin patches. Believers don't even have to wait up all night. They just don sweaters, head to the nearest patch, and stay for the day. Most pumpkin farms feature fall festivals every weekend in October with hayrides, corn mazes, pony rides, country music, and apple cider, as well as other traditional autumn activities and fare.

At Butler's Orchard in Germantown, where hay wagons trundle young pumpkin pickers down the hilly path toward the pumpkin patch, the annual pumpkin festival began 22 years ago with pumpkins, a hayride and a few scarecrows stuffed by the Butler family. This year's festival, which runs through Sunday, has attracted thousands of people, who come for the live bands, the country food, and the children's activities which include a straw maze, a hayloft jump, and "Pumpkinland," a large and intricate display of funny characters made out of straw and pumpkins.

Pumpkin festivals, mounted by many farms, make a perfect way to enjoy the season.

"People tend to linger. The air is crisp and cool and the leaves are spectacular this time of year," Mark Zurschmeide of Great Country Farms in Bluemont, Va., says as he bags apples and gourds for a customer at the farm's market. "There is so much to do: tractor rides, pig races, fishing in our stocked pond, and don't forget the petting zoo. We have a tree-climbing goat."

The Great Country Farms fall festival is not so much a Halloween shindig as a seasonal celebration. "We don't use scary ghosts or goblins for decoration, just cornstalks, pumpkins, gourds, bales of hay and the red and gold mums we sell at the farm market," Mr. Zurschmeide says.

No one has seen the Great Pumpkin at Great Country Farms yet, but it's not for lack of trying. "We allow groups of 20 or more to pick pumpkins at night with flashlights. Last year, over 200 Girl Scouts were out in the patch one night," says Mr. Zurschmeide, confiding that there was no shortage of shrieks and squeals in his 20-acre patch, but no confirmed sightings.

That's not quite so at Butler's. Susan Butler, who grew up there and now runs the farm with her two brothers, swears the farm had a visit last year from the Great Pumpkin itself a visit prompted by a child's letter addressed to the Great One in care of the orchard.

"The Great Pumpkin wrote back with a promise that something special would be left for the child in the pumpkin patch on that Halloween night," Ms. Butler says. "The next morning a gigantic pumpkin, weighing at least 80 to 90 pounds, was found in the patch next to a bag of candy Skittles."

•••

The popularity of these festivals provides a revenue boost to the farms as the year winds down. "In the old days, our season ended in August with the last of the peaches," says Ms. Butler, standing among rows of Halloween costumes, pumpkin carving kits, and spooky decorations at the country market.

"Then my father decided that we children should develop projects that would carry over into the fall to earn spending money. My sister sold flowers, and I grew gourds, but my brothers, Todd and Wade, chose pumpkins. I remember sitting on the back of the wagon, helping them drop the first pumpkin seeds into the ground. That was 30 years ago. How things have changed."

Now Butler's Orchard grows 10 different varieties of pumpkins. "We have something for everyone," says Ms. Butler, "though most people tend to like odd-shaped pumpkins with lots of warts or the unripe green pumpkins, which are actually easier to carve, and make great Martian heads."

At Great Country Farms, the more familiar "face" pumpkins, the Jackpot and Goldrush, share space with the Alumina, greenish white pumpkins often used in seasonal decorating, and the Fairy Tale, a pale orange, squatty pumpkin that might have been the place where Peter Peter Pumpkin Eater kept his wife.

"Pumpkins are easy to pick just pull," says Mr. Zurschmeide. "The only rule we have at the farm is that you must be able to carry your own."

That would rule out the Big Mac. Undoubtedly a close relative of the Great Pumpkin, the nearly round Big Mac pumpkins weigh in at over 50 pounds apiece. "We have an entire pumpkin patch just of the Big Macs," says Ms. Butler.

"Big Macs are so heavy that it usually takes several men and a tractor just to move them," she says, noting that they are not for everyone. "We do have a repeat customer who buys one each Halloween. After he carves it, he places a speaker inside. His house is known in the neighborhood for having the talking pumpkin."

Even a smaller Big Mac would contain upward of 40 pounds of flesh. That could make a lot of pies, but big pumpkins aren't needed for baking.

"You can make pies from any type of pumpkin," says Dick Biggs of Rock Hill Orchards in Damascus, who suggests starting with a more easy to handle pumpkin. "The best [pies] are from the Cinderella pumpkin," he says.

Looking like a tiny version of the fairy tale carriage before the transformation, the Rouge Vif D' Etampes, better known as the Cinderella, was once the most common pumpkin sold in the Central Market in Paris in the 1880s. A brilliant reddish-orange, the Cinderella can be grown only from heirloom seeds, which are saved from pumpkins each year and then replanted the next season.

"Some families have saved the pumpkin seeds from their Cinderella crop each year for over a hundred years," says Mr. Biggs. "This pumpkin has an incredible taste, just like the rich old-time flavor. The pies are delicious."

Mr. Biggs also recommends baking with the Blue Hubbard squash, a bluish white gourd first grown in this country in the late 1700s by Elizabeth Hubbard of Marblehead, Mass., from some seeds given to her by a seafaring captain.

"Pumpkins are a type of squash," says Mr. Biggs. "The Blue Hubbard makes an excellent pie that tastes just like pumpkin."

A small working farm, Rock Hill Orchard offers pick-your own pumpkins, hayrides, and picnicking during the weekends in October, and on weekdays plays host to busloads of school children. "We have a field dedicated to Mystic Plus pumpkins. They are an ideal weight for little ones to carry and are all about the same size," Mr. Biggs says.

"This is my first year with this type of disease-resistant pumpkin, and they did very well."

•••

Powdery mildew is the bane of the pumpkin/squash family. Though scientists are working on ways to deter its growth by developing newer and better genetically altered, or hybrid seeds and plants, like the Mystic Plus, this blight caused by the fungus Erysiphe cichoracearum continues to attack pumpkins at their lifeline: the stem.

"Pumpkins with powdery mildew don't grow as big, and their stems snap off easily," Mr. Biggs says. He hoists a particularly large pumpkin clinging to the vine by a thickly ribbed dark-green stem. "This is what a healthy stem looks like," he says. "Pumpkins grow better with a firm stem."

Despite the potential for disease, pumpkins tend to be hardy, and this year's yield, which weathered a long drought and scorching summer heat, is certainly a testament to that.

"Though pumpkins are not as big this year, they are as numerous," says Mr. Zurschmeide of Great Country Farms. "Pumpkins have deep roots and require little water over their 100-day growing cycle. We got a little rain in spring when the seeds were first planted, which was enough to keep them alive while they set their roots."

Butler's Orchard plants a cover crop of rye with the pumpkins. "When it reaches about three feet, we lay it down like a carpet around the vines. It keeps in the moisture," Ms. Butler says. "This year we really saw the benefit of using the rye."

Though the lack of water wasn't much of an issue for the pumpkins this year, deer continued to be, ruining sometimes up to a third or more of the crop.

"We asked the deer to leave, but they refused to go" begins a sign posted in the country store at Butler's Orchard that gives the reason for the 8-foot high, 3-mile fence surrounding part of the farm that the Butlers recently purchased at a cost of $100,000.

"Deer have become a huge challenge in the farming business in the last few years," Ms. Butler says. "Not only do they eat the pumpkins, but they ate all the strawberries, including the leaves, all the way down to the ground and damaged the plants."

Mr. Biggs of Rock Hill Orchard lost as much as half his crops in the last year, including apples, peaches and cherries, to the local deer population. "Deer like pumpkins, especially the little pumpkins and the unripe green ones. They'll take a chunk out of the bigger orange ones, too," he says. "Our pumpkins weren't hit too hard, mostly because the patch is near the road, but they've feasted on about everything else, especially the crops planted near the woods."

Though the Great Pumpkin is an institution to trick-or-treaters everywhere, Mr. Biggs doesn't put much stock in seeing him this year. It's not that his small patch dotted with bright orange spheres isn't tended with as much sincerity as nearby Butler's Orchard's, it's just that for different reasons, including the extreme weather conditions this summer, his pumpkins ripened earlier than usual.

"I told my customers not to wait to pick their pumpkins this year," says Mr. Biggs. "There won't be many left by the end of the month."

Though his patch could be picked clean by Halloween night, Mr. Biggs is still hopeful that the Great Pumpkin will make an appearance. "Maybe he'll scare away the deer. They're taking a toll on my soybeans."

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