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Workers find picking pumpkins hard, 'but it's a job'

10/6/2003 News media contact: Kathy Gilbert · (615) 742-5470 · Nashville, Tenn.

This story is a sidebar to UMNS #479. Photographs are available.

A UMNS Feature By Kathy L. Gilbert*

FARMINGTON, N.M. (UMNS) - First thing in the morning, the air is crisp and cool. Two hours later, it is hot and dry.

Wind blows the silky fine dust everywhere. At the end of the day, the workers in the pumpkin fields will have enough dirt on their bodies to start their own pumpkin patch.

From dawn till dusk, more than 400 workers will stoop, cut, grab, toss and load pumpkins into cavernous 18-wheel trucks for delivery to locations across the United States.

Twenty varieties of pumpkins cover more than 1,600 acres. The vegetables range from tiny to enormous. Some are white, some are red, and some are covered with what look like the warts on a witch's nose.

Workers form a human chain and toss the pumpkins to each other until they reach the conveyor belt hooked into the back of the trailers. Once the pumpkins are on the conveyor belt, workers inside the trailers inspect and stack them. Those that don't pass inspection come flying out of the back of the truck.

The pumpkins can't be too ripe or too green, and they must have a "handle."

"People like to have a bit of the stem on their pumpkins," says Tina Jones, the chief financial officer of Pumpkin Patch USA, the company that leases the land from the Navajo Nation.

Bend down, pick up a pumpkin, toss it to the next person, repeat. Slow, hypnotic work that requires little brain power but a lot of attention if you don't want to get hit in the head by the next pumpkin coming your way.

Old yellow school buses load the workers and take them to the seemingly endless miles of pumpkins. Most of the workers are Navajo. For the approximately 45 days of harvest, they will put in long hours, seven days a week, doing backbreaking labor.

"It's hot and it's hard, but it's a job," a young Navajo man says. "It keeps me out of trouble," he adds, laughing as he bends to pick up another pumpkin.

At noon, the lunch wagon - a Frito-Lay truck in a previous life - rumbles into the field to bring a hot lunch and a much-needed break to the workers.

"They have to rotate jobs," Richard Hamby, owner of Pumpkin Patch USA, says. "One man can't stoop over and pick up pumpkins all day."

Hamby started the pumpkin patch business almost 30 years ago. In the beginning, he touched every pumpkin that went out.

"I was the best pumpkin stacker in the business," he says, with pride. Today, Navajo workers do most of the picking, tossing and stacking. When the work picks up, migrant workers from Mexico help.

By the time the last pumpkin is gleaned, more than 700 trucks will have gone out.

Watching an 18-wheel truck make its slow way out of the field, Hamby muses, "Every year, we think we will never get to the end. But we always do."

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*Gilbert is a United Methodist News Service news writer.

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