A 1,200-acre parcel of farmland on the Navajo Nation turns into a miniature, bustling city every fall.
Here, on land leased from Navajo Agricultural Products Industry, seasonal workers help pick 45 million pounds of pumpkins and ship them to nonprofit organizations in 46 states. Pumpkin Patch Fundraisers, a North Carolina-based business, hires a 99-percent Native staff that works for six weeks per year to pick, sort, pack and ship pumpkins to 1,200 destinations in what is arguably the country’s largest autumn fundraiser.
Pumpkin Patch owner Richard Hamby ships only to nonprofits, forging agreements with churches and civic organizations to sell pumpkins on consignment and split the profit.
“You have to be crazy to do this,” said Hamby, who founded Pumpkin Patch Fundraisers in 1975 and moved it to the Navajo Nation in 1991. He may be the only businessman in the country who counts the shopping days before Halloween.
“It’s really stressful because the window of opportunity to sell a pumpkin ends October 31,” Hamby said. “Pumpkins have a negative value after that.”
Pumpkin fields stretch as far as the eye can see on a patch of Navajo land in northwestern New Mexico.
Pumpkins take 100 days to mature from seed to harvest. Crews arrive during the second week of September and stay until October 24—one week before Halloween.
Workers process roughly 5.5 million pumpkins or 1,000 tractor-trailers, each loaded with 45,000 pounds of produce. The farm produces 25 varieties of pumpkins, and each one is hand-cut, inspected and loaded onto a truck.
“When the crews start coming in, we see people from lots of different tribes,” said Defrades Soseeah, a crew leader from the Zuni Pueblo. “Then when the truckers come in, we see all nationalities.”
The pumpkin patch supports about 30 full-time employees and as many as 15,000 seasonal workers per year, all hired with Navajo preference. The annual payroll tops $2 million, and seasonal crews stay until the last pumpkins are loaded and the trucks are on the road.
A seasonal worker for Pumpkin Patch Fundraisers, located on the Navajo Nation, sorts through a box of miniature pumpkins before shipping them to nonprofit organizations across the country.
Half of the seasonal employees stay in an on-site dormitory, get subsidized meals and shop for necessities at a tiny store. Other employees are bused in from a 100-mile radius or board at nearby hotels. A professional chef serves up 50,000 meals per season, and sack lunches are delivered to workers in the fields.
Crews do a variety of jobs: Some walk the length of fields, using clippers to cut individual pumpkins from their vines. Others sort pumpkins and still others form assembly lines, tossing pumpkins from the fields to conveyor belts that transport them to trucks.
A crew of seasonal workers moves pumpkins from the fields to a conveyer belt that delivers them to a truck.
It’s a lot of work for a product mostly used for decorative purposes, said farm manager Leon Notah, who is Navajo. But pumpkins that leave the farm bear the Navajo name.
“That makes all the difference,” Notah said. “Everyone enjoys the pumpkins, picking them up or loading them, because when we send them out, they have the Navajo name on them.”