Sunday, October 28, 2012

The Pumpkin Paradox

The food most often associated with Halloween is candy - the individually-wrapped mini chocolate bars, lollipops and fruit chews that make up a lucky kid's stash, to be hidden under the bed and visited time and again. Overlooked, but present everywhere, is the true food* of Halloween- the pumpkin. Throughout our cities and suburbs globes of orange and deep green decorate front porches and stoops, mantles and windows. While rarely is a whole pumpkin used for cooking anymore (besides roasted seeds), it is an agricultural product, with its own cultural requirements and historical significance. And it stars in a special type of themed local food 'agri-tainment' shared only by the Christmas tree and perhaps the apple - the family pilgrimage to the nearest 'countryside' available to pick one's own pumpkin from the field, while partaking of an ever-growing array of entertainment options like corn mazes, hay rides, haunted houses and petting zoos. Or a simulacra of the pumpkin patch that finds its way onto a vacant city lot, where dried corn stalks line the fenced perimeter and stacks of hay are artfully arranged in mis-en-scene. 

In this way the unassuming pumpkin is a fascinating paradox for the local food movement - an agricultural product that as a food is consumed largely as a processed import, but that as a decorative element is most prized when it can be found locally.

Ninety percent of the pumpkins grown in the U.S. are grown within a 90-mile radius of Peoria, IL, for processing as canned pumpkin and pie filling. Considering the national harvest is worth $113 million, this fact brings to my mind's eye an image of Peoria floating like the Emerald City in a fairy-tale field of pumpkins stretching to the horizon in all directions, through which a brave heroine must make her way. Concentrated growing patterns are not unusual - think of California artichokes or Michigan cherries. But what is unusual in this case is that pumpkins can be grown almost anywhere in the country, whereas other regionally concentrated crops are more dependent on a specific local climate or soil. 

So why is it so important that the pumpkins we don't eat come from somewhere nearby, that we can 'pick' them ourselves even if its from a city lot decorated like a farm? Perhaps it is some latent impulse of the harvest time, forgotten but still pulsing within our post-agricultural society's veins. As the days grow shorter and the air crisper, does the urge to harvest call? Do we long to feel a sense of shoring up against the winter or of tangible accomplishment after a long summer?

The pumpkin patch is an intriguing micro-model in the world of farming. Pumpkins are heavy feeders and need lots of water (an inch per week), so in a way its a shame to use them only as decoration. They also take up lots of room and have a fairly long growing season of four to five months. Some pumpkin patches operate as hobby farms, growing only pumpkins and focusing on creating additional revenue from on-farm entertainment options. Other farms dedicate acreage to the seasonal crop while having a year-round agricultural operation as well. Estimated yields are 1000-2000 pumpkins per acre for large carving varieties. Because of the profitability in the model, pumpkins are becoming a popular fund-raiser for churches and schools.

[Distribution of pumpkin patches or farm locations, via mapmuse]
I found this map of patch locations across the country, showing a strong concentration on the coasts, and mid-western cities, with gaps across the west. It reminded me of a recent Edible Geography post about mapping Starbucks locations, with a strikingly similar distribution. Perhaps there is no harvest impulse, but like pumpkin lattes, pumpkins are simply a commodity of urbanized areas where disposable income generates an interest in the unusual, the gimmick, the new, the 'experience'. 

What does this mean for landscape? Perhaps we'll see more and more urban pumpkin farms sprouting up - with guaranteed income, high profit margin and simplified single-crop planting plan (albeit with a high nutrient input need) it's not a bad idea. Or perhaps the rural margins of cities will continue to evolve into a littoral zone where entertainment and simplicity meet, a low-tech carnival atmosphere that speaks to the allure of old country fairs and travelling church meets. The pumpkin has long been a symbol of power through transformation, from the Celtic tradition of carving gourds to communicate with the dead, to Cinderella's pumpkin carriage - the true beauty in the thing being what it can become, not what it is. 

* if by 'food' you mean "that may nourish a person" (via
top image via