Pumpkins are special! Why? What do they do? Why do we value them?
We can eat pumpkins. They make excellent pie, bread or soup. But so does squash, and squash aren't nearly as exciting as pumpkins.
We can use pumpkins for decorations. Pumpkins appear on the lawns and porches of homes every October. They are showy decorations, brightly colored, their many bright orange shapes highlighted by the changing leaves and other autumn colors. But many other things are brightly colored and can blend with the fall colors. Why have we chosen pumpkins to be our special decorations?
Pumpkins are part of the celebration of Halloween. Halloween. The celebration of mystery and ghosts and goblins. It's a holiday for children. A holiday when at least thinking about being a little bit naughty is OK. Little religious symbolism remains. It doesn't commemorate any great national event. It's just a big party for kids. And everyone gives them candy. No wonder it's popular! Is this why we value pumpkins? How did pumpkins come to be a symbol of Halloween? Why did we choose pumpins?
A century ago, pumpkins were planted in the corn field, with the corn, where the vines trailed among the corn plants. They were harvested in the fall, stored, and used as food for humans and livestock. We were an agrarian nation then. A large majority of Americans lived and worked on farms.
In many ways, Halloween is also a celebration of fall and harvest and plenty. A celebration of an agrarian nation in the fall. A celebration of a farming culture at harvest time, when hearts and minds are full of the bounty of the harvest. Such was our wealth that a pumpkin could be sacrificed as an ornament, a scary lantern for Halloween. Who would miss just one of the fruit? And besides, the seeds could be eaten, and the remains of the jack-o-lantern could be fed to cattle or horses the day after Halloween, so nothing would really be wasted.
Farming practice began to change 90 to 100 years ago, when machines replaced men and horses in the fields. Tractor mounted cultivators were more difficult to steer around pumpkin vines than were horses and hoes. Tractors would crush the pumpkins during the fall harvest. Pumpkins caught in a corn picker caused an unmanageable mess. New, high yielding corn varieties couldn't tell the difference between competition from pumpkins and that of any other weed. Herbicides to protect the corn from weeds also killed pumpkin plants. So the practice of interplanting corn and pumpkins ended, victim of the modernization of agriculture.
The US changed. Today we are a highly technological, urban, nation. Only about 1% of us remain on the farm. The practice of interplanting corn and pumpkins is nearly forgotten in today's urban America. Or is it? It is remembered by tradition, not human memory. We still carve a pumpkin into a jack-o-lantern to symbolize the bounty of the harvest at Halloween. We decorate our yards and our porches with pumpkins. Many still add corn shocks as well as pumpkins to their outdoor displays as a part of the fall ritual to remember the days when nearly all Americans lived on the farm, and corn and pumpkins were grown together. Perhaps some of these people don't even know why they do it, except that it is fun, creates an attractive fall display, is a necessary part of the Halloween tradition; it just feels like the right thing to do!
At The Tree Farm, we too are afflicted with modern agriculture. We grow the pumpkins in the pumpkin field; the corn in the corn field. We don't interplant them. Things aren't grown as great grandfather grew them. But we do provide a place where people can come and wander in the pumpkin field to find just the right pumpkin for their own jack-o-lantern or lawn display. We have pumpkins small enough for a preschooler to carry, and large enough for most adults. And we have a corn field where ornamental corn can be picked from the stalk. And a popcorn field where popcorn can be harvested. And there are ornamental gourds, winter squash and many of the other things that our agrarian forbearers valued during the fall harvest.
We have kept it simple. This is a farm. Go elsewhere if you are looking for an amusement park. At The Tree Farm you can get a pumpkin, pick some popcorn or just walk in the fields enjoying the fall colors and the quiet. Things aren't as they were in great grandfather's day. They never will be again. But if you stand quietly on our wind swept hilltop on a crisp fall day, squint your eyes hard and look back for about a century, you can almost see it from here.