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Pumpkin farms do smash business

By Special to The Christian Science Monitor / October 31, 2002



GREENFIELD, N.H.

The siege of the oil-drum castle at Yankee Farm begins at dusk. With the help of a reporter, a dentist, and another farmer, Steve Seigars cranks the 40-foot arm of his homemade trebuchet, or medieval catapult, and readies his favorite choice of ammo in the sling – a 50-pound pumpkin.

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Aimed at a makeshift castle at the edge of his pumpkin field – and with a troop of Brownie scouts overseeing – the machine lurches as its 8,000 pound counterweight drops, flinging the pumpkin in a slow arc across the New Hampshire countryside.

The gourd sails over a line of trees and crashes into the woods 900 feet away. The Brownies cheer. "Everybody needs something frivolous, something stupid, in their lives," says the machine's creator, a wool cap pulled down over the tops of his glasses.

Apparently so. The siege machine – the third-largest in the world – has become a shrewd marketing device in the increasingly competitive arena of pumpkin-patch promotions. It's part of the growing field of "agritainment" designed to draw people to farm stands.

So far, the gambit has worked. "We've sold three times more pumpkins this year than last," says Mr. Seigars.

Squeezed by low prices on grains and vegetables, farmers across America are taking advantage of a bolstered interest in Halloween to sell not just pumpkins, but T-shirts, jams, relishes, and other homemade goods to supplement otherwise faltering incomes.

In Piermont, N.H., one farmer spends weeks carving up to a thousand pumpkins that are placed in a field and lit on Halloween night. In Hollis, N.H., the Brookdale Farm builds a massive hay house each fall to draw the curious. And at Cottonwood Farm in Crest Hill, Ill., farmer Paul Siegel has built an "animatronics" show featuring the Seven Dwarves in a "pumpkin mine."

"People want more than a pumpkin: They want entertainment," says Mr. Siegel of Cottonwood Farm.

Still, the gourds themselves maintain a certain allure, too. In the past decade, pumpkin sales have skyrocketed and consumers are spending more time at the farm stand. Today, a regular visit can last four hours, up from only 45 minutes in the early 1990s.

"Halloween is shifting from one night to a seasonal event," says Scott Krugman of the National Retail Federation in Washington. "So there's plenty of opportunity for farmers to bring people onto their property."

Seigars's Yankee siege machine has certainly done that. Math and physics classes visit from local high schools to watch the 40,000-pound "man-toy" sling 200-pound pumpkins.

"My main customers are children who love to see pumpkins smashing, and men over 30 who are drawn to the big gears and utter simplicity of what is, at heart, actually a very complex machine," says Seigars.

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