Reaping a Halloween Harvest


JOHN ARENA is ready for a breather. As a pumpkin farmer, he marks today as the end of the ``full blast.'' ``October is the busiest and best month of the year,'' he says from under a red and white baseball cap on the grounds of his scenic Concord, Mass., farm.

``We see the pumpkin at the end of the tunnel,'' quips his son Nat.

Looking out onto a field backdropped by trees of muted color, Arena estimates that his 42 acres will yield about 250 tons of pumpkins - about half what he'd get in a banner year. A wet spring and a late planting in July made for a smaller crop, says Arena, whose family-run business was started by his father in the 1920s.

The mild-mannered Arena escorts a visitor around the pumpkin patch, where nearly 65 tons of pumpkins, plump off the vine, are piled up for customers' choosing. The mounds look like some sort of quarry refuse; haphazard displays of deformed basketballs. Sold by the pound, the varieties include field pumpkins (at about 15 pounds apiece), sugar pumpkins (best for cooking, about 4 pounds), and giant show pumpkins.

These gargantuan hybrids - sometimes called ``squmpkins'' (squash-pumpkin mix) - are used for display in malls and hotels, or entered in contests. Nat Arena just sold a 319-pounder to a local radio station that plans to drop it by helicopter onto some cars as a fund-raising event. (The squmpkins sell for $1 a pound.)

As much as 20 percent of the crop won't be sold. But no pumpkin goes to waste: ``We bulldoze 'em back into the field - it's the best fertilizer,'' says Arena. As a result of last year's pumpkin dump, they've had their best tomato harvest ever. Nat discovered their remarkable fertilizing properties by accident when lettuce flourished over a pumpkin fill one year. Pumpkins, it turns out, store all kinds of plant nutrients - nitrates and potash - and make them more readily available to plants the next year.

At harvest time, pumpkins are cut off vines with shears and picked up one at a time. ``It's all hand work,'' Arena says. ``They are carefully handled to avoid bruises.'' The squmpkins have to be rolled onto a blanket and lifted by several men onto a truck.

Patrons are particular about their pumpkins. ``People pick up 100 pumpkins before they decide on one,'' says Arena, who sees such behavior year after year.

``We like the cooler days,'' he adds, because ``on the nicer days, they mull around for hours.''

Every Saturday, anyone who guesses the weight of the pumpkin he's buying within a pound gets it free. ``We gave away 81 pumpkins last weekend,'' says Arena.

Shoppers trailing red wagons walk the paths of pumpkin-dom, hoping to spot one that will end their search. Most want a good orange color, a smooth surface, and a decent stem, says Arena. Some want an ugly pumpkin, says Nat - one with a big woodchuck slash or fungus attack.

``You want a tall, skinny one - for tall faces,'' says nine-year-old Nathan Cooprider of Belmont, Mass., here with his mother, brother, and sister.

As for the real big ones, Nathan says, ``They're kind of hard to carry home, and it's very hard to fit one on your porch.''

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.