The power of New Mexico’s pumpkins

Unidentified pumpkins fill the frame of this public domain photo taken from a photo-sharing website.

Kent Paterson

Frontera NorteSur

Editor’s note: In the days before Halloween, pumpkins start popping up everywhere. Although pumpkins are not as renowned as chile or even pecans in New Mexico agriculture, home-grown specimens supply the cravings of pie-lovers and stir the fantasies of spook celebrators. And recently, pumpkins have become a part of the annual cycle of fall harvest festivals in southern New Mexico. 

Today’s story is a continuation of Frontera NorteSur’s occasional stories on the economy, history and culture of southern New Mexico since statehood in 1912. Funding for this story was made possible in part by the New Mexico Humanities Council, National Endowment for the Humanities and the McCune Charitable Foundation.

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While the theater of autumn plays on, plump and scary objects make an entrance onto the stage. Their orange skins glowing in the sun and blending into the kaleidoscope of changing foliage, fall pumpkins are an enduring part of the US cultural landscape.

As a food, an ornament or a subject of prose and poem, pumpkins excite, satisfy, tease, torment and terrorize. And they are a ready pretext for mischief, from the bratty adolescent rite of smashing jack-o-lanterns on neighbors’ porches to the more serious “prank” like the destruction recently wrought by an unknown vandal or vandals who drove through two pumpkin farms in Curry County, NM, tearing up crops and causing an estimated $4,500 in damages, according to press reports.

Mostly, though, the pumpkin is cause for feast and fun. In southern New Mexico, thousands of people celebrated pumpkin power this month at Las Cruces’ 4th Annual New Mexico Pumpkin Festival. The festival is sponsored by growers Anna and Steve Lyles, and organized with the assistance of Helping Hands Event Planning of Las Cruces.

The pumpkin celebration is growing “slowly and steadily” said Helping Hands’ Dawn Starostka.

After years of growing pumpkins and realizing there was no local, yearly celebration of the big bad uncle of the squash family, the farm couple decided to “jump in with both feet,” Anna Lyles told Frontera NorteSur.

So was born the New Mexico pumpkin festival. Sprawled out on the grounds of the Lyles’ 45-acre Mesilla Valley Corn Maze, the pumpkin festival is now held on an October  weekend every year. Definitely a family affair, the festival includes hayrides, music, food, vendors, educational farm exhibits, pumpkin pie-eating contests and yes, seed spitting competitions.

A hands-on, outdoor musical classroom is set up for budding virtuosos who can bang away on buckets, horseshoes, pans and a surprisingly innovative array of other instruments.

The festival as well as the ongoing corn maze offer “lots of games and activities for families,” Lyles said. “If you have a family with kids under 12, that’s the place you want to be.” Not allowing alcohol, the pumpkin bash draws people from El Paso in addition to Doña Ana County and other parts of southern New Mexico.

El Pasoan Sarahi Avila was among the contestants who stood behind a yellow line spitting pumpkin seeds at a target set against two hay bales. “I got into it just for the fun of it,” Avila chuckled. The El Paso mother said she comes every year with her “family” from Riverside Church to have a good time outside the big city. A fan of pumpkin pie, Avila added that she also liked pumpkin empanadas, a borderland twist on pumpkin cuisine.

Like other local festivities, the New Mexico Pumpkin Festival gives an opportunity for local musical talent to display their skills to a public that might not else be exposed to a particular musician or group. This year, the young Las Cruces female duet of Ambrosia Dei performed for the pumpkin-pumped masses.

“It was a lot of fun singing, seeing people have a good time,” said singer Alyssa Newton. “Singing Justin Beaver-it doesn’t get any better than that.”

An energetic couple, the Lyles also sponsor the New Mexico Pecan Festival at their big corn maze site. Now in its second year, the pecan celebration appeals to an older crowd, according to Anna Lyles. The festival will be held the weekend of  Oct. 28-29.

As for pumpkins, the crop is a “very, very minor” one around Las Cruces compared with pecans and onions, said Jeff Anderson, Doña Ana County extension agent for the New Mexico Cooperative Extension Service. Nonetheless, pumpkins “fill a niche” in the overall agricultural economy, Anderson said. “They grow nice if you take the time to do it,” he added.

Next door, in Luna County, growing conditions are reportedly even better for pumpkins than in Doña Ana. Jack Blanford, Luna County extension agent, estimated between 500 and 1,000 acres of local land went into pumpkin production this year. The crop has “increased some” during the past five to seven years, Blanford told Frontera NorteSur, with some growers finding sales outlets in the big retail market.

Pumpkins are hand-harvested, Blanford said, though more conveyor belts are used to move the harvested crop along in the fields than were used in the recent past. Blanford said farmers had no trouble contracting labor this year, and he did not foresee a harvest machine mechanizing the fields on the immediate horizon. “I do see (pumpkin production) expanding some,” he added, “but I don’t foresee a drastic change in it.”

Statewide, approximately 2,200 acres were devoted to pumpkin growing in 1997, according to reports from county agents. The 2007 US Census of Agriculture indentified 139 farms that harvested 4,030 acres of pumpkins in Doña Ana, Luna, McKinley and Torrance counties. According to the Las Cruces office of the National Agricultural Statistics Service, updated numbers on pumpkin farming will be collected during the 2012 national farm census and made available in 2013.

This year wasn’t the easiest time for pumpkin growers in Doña Ana County’s Elephant Butte Irrigation District. Like other farmers, the Lyles pumped groundwater for their crops because a combination of drought and extra water deliveries to Texas dried up the Rio Grande’s waters. Indeed, on the weekend of the pumpkin festival, the river crossing at Las Cruces was more a sandy arroyo than a mighty force of historical lore. The big river had become the Rio Desaparecido.

Pumpkins have a fresh market life of about 30 days, Lyles stressed, selling as an item of public interest between two important holidays. In New Mexico, it is not uncommon to see pumpkins displayed or sold next to chile ristras, the long strings of red chile popular in the fall.

“People are only interested in pumpkins until about Thanksgiving,” the Doña Ana County farmer/festival entrepreneur said. “After that, they’re old news.” Not long after racking up experience in farming, the Lyles decided that the best way to sell pumpkins was for people to come out to their farm and pick the plump treasures themselves. Besides turning a better profit, the pick-your-own operation serves other goals the Lyles try to achieve with their twin harvest festivals and corn maze.

“We want families to reconnect with agriculture; most people have forgotten that without farmers they’d be both hungry and naked,” Lyles said. “We’re trying to remind them a little bit — trying to give them, their children, a kind of taste of what their parents and grandparents had.”

Pumpkins have long been characters in lore and legend. For instance, Lyles recalled a story she heard about the Mighty Mabel, a 1,200-pound pumpkin that was hollowed out and used as a canoe to navigate a Connecticut waterway until it sank. As the course of history determined, the Mighty Mabel never became a regular ferry service. “The Mighty Mabel’s maiden voyage was also its last,” Lyles sadly observed.

Frontera NorteSur: online, U.S.-Mexico border news
Center for Latin American and Border Studies
New Mexico State University
Las Cruces, New Mexico

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