A few of the busty orange pumpkins tumbled off the tractor trailer as a white pickup pulled it up from the fields. A few pumpkins didn’t make much of a difference to the load — Roy Patterson, the current owner of Darr Farms, estimates that the overall load weighs about 20,000 pounds.
"That’s about ten tons, including the trailer," Patterson said. "On a regular day, we’ll pull about a quarter million pumpkins out of those fields."
On a busy day, it’s more like 400,000.
Looking out over the fields, it’s hard to conceive the number of pumpkins that 310 acres can hold. Rows and rows of green vine stretch out into the distance, a dot of orange sprinkled in every couple feet. To someone unfamiliar with pumpkin farming, it would appear there were enough pumpkins there to supply half the state.
Except those were just the ones they’d lost to rot.
Most of the fields had already been picked through by this time of year. Taking a closer look, much of what was left in the field looked like deflated basketballs. The fields were littered with half-sunken globs of what used to be pumpkins. Patterson admitted the weather had not cooperated with the farm like it had in the past, which many of the pumpkin growers at the Barnesville Pumpkin Festival had also said.
"We’ve had a rotten hot summer, and the rain pushed them to maturity sooner than we wanted," Patterson shrugged.
The season was far from lost though, as the pickers in the field filled up wagon after wagon— the farm has 15 in total — with their product. This was the first year Patterson’s had an uncertain yield since he took over nine years ago for George Darr. Darr can remember much worse years, however.
"One November, our total sales were $5," Darr said. "That doesn't pay the bills."
The farm has been in the Darr name since his father bought it at a public auction in 1954. Darr took over the farm from his father in the late 70’s. Since then, they’ve lived through the high interest 80’s, an embargo on crops and times where they had to sell off half their equipment.
"I’d just as soon forget, but that’s part of my history," Darr said.
Growing pumpkins was actually one of the operations the farm implemented to diversify their budget years ago, and it’s been helping since. They currently ship to over a dozen states east of the Mississippi, from New England to Florida. In 10 years, the farm has almost tripled its acreage. At 310 acres, Patterson figures they’re one of the biggest pumpkin farms in Ohio. The large operation still relies heavily on the hands of workers.
The farm employs a group of Latino workers who come up every year from Florida to harvest the crop. Since Patterson took over three years ago, he’s been implementing new tools to make the job easier on them, including the introduction of a 40-foot conveyor belt, which can be driven out into the fields for the workers to load pumpkins with.
"They used to have to stumble through the vines to get to load each pumpkin," Patterson said. "Now they just toss them on the line."
Patterson took over for Darr three years ago, although he’s been at the farm since he was 15 years old, except for a stint at steel mill. Darr’s two sons are both in the agriculture business, but they both live in other states.
"You have to be dedicated," Darr said. "We’re very fortunate to have an employee who became the owner because his ability to lead and make good decisions."
Patterson’s easy temperament and sensible decision making landed him the position of new owner, and Darr said he’s satisfied with his decision. Patterson’s ability to keep up with technology was one of the main factor’s in Darr’s decision.
"The population will double by 2055. How are we going to feed these people?" Darr asked. "We farmers will have to produce more. By adapting to modern technology, we can be more productive."
The farm’s been keeping up with the times— like the auto industry, farm equipment is inching toward driverless automation. Currently, they’re able to utilize automatic steering and mapping software that allows them to keep spacing perfect. The current buzz is drones. They’ll allow farmers to fly over fields and inspect the crop from above for planting issues. From there, they’ll be able to print maps in areas that did poorly and evaluate why.
"Ten years ago, the word drone wouldn’t even be in the conversation," Darr said.
Pumpkin growing in particular can be an expensive business, but also rewarding. Patterson said they put about $80,000 in seeds alone. They also have expenses most people wouldn’t figure into the bottom line, like renting 150 beehives to help with pollination. Despite poor growing conditions, Patterson said he’s still confident in this year’s yield. In one of their Gnadenhutten fields, they got about 22 tons an acre. 18 tons is considered a good run. The pumpkin sales decline almost entirely after October, and Darr farms will move onto their next crop.
"We chew it all up and start fresh," Patterson said. "Come back in December and you won’t know any pumpkins were here."