Tuesday, September 20, 2011
Every television station in America will air a story on something unusual to do with pumpkins this fall. There are the stories about underwater pumpkin carving, pumpkins so large they must be lifted with a crane, and the fine art of carving intricate faces and designs that go well past the toothy grin of the jack-o-lantern on your front porch.
Into that mix then comes the genre of stories involving clever ways to hurl pumpkins across the field -- or in some cases, many fields. Delaware even hosts the national competition for pumpkin hurlers.
There are trebuchets, slingshots, and in the case of my own story, canons.
This is all great fun. Really. You might say it’s wasteful to splatter pumpkins across some random hillside, yet people line up by the hundreds to either see or do it. I’m betting you couldn’t take your eyes off the video of the Umberger brothers and young Makaela shooting these perfect pumpkins into next week.
We can wonder why it’s so much fun, perhaps even debate it. But for Bobby Williams, the third generation of his family to operate Williams Orchard it’s simple: money.
His grandfather started the 700 acre operation in the 1920’s. “Back then we could operate by growing things and selling them to local people,” he told me as we stood in front of the store that still sells apples, locally produced preserves, and yes, pumpkins. “Back in the 50’s and 60’s people had root cellars and they would back in here and buy a pick-up truck load of apples and store them all winter.”
Gradually, supermarkets, better transportation and technology combined with foreign competition made the apple business less profitable. So Bobby started planting pumpkins about 30 years ago.
The pumpkins, led to hayrides, pick-your-own patches, a corn maze, wholesale vending and the Punkin Chunker. Though the store is full of apples, Williams says pumpkins do more business. “It’s about 60-40 pumpkins,” he said.
Williams isn’t alone. Farmers across Virginia are turning to “agri-tourism” or as Williams calls it, “agri-tainment.”
That’s why he conned his son-in-law, Patrick Umberger into designing and building the Punkin’ Chunker.
It’s five dollars a pop, to shoot the Chunker, using a Wile E. Coyote-looking plunger device, but that’s not really where the money is.
“Oh, we make some money from people coming to shoot it,” says Williams, but really, it’s just an attraction.”
That it is. You can buy a pumpkin at Wal-Mart. But if you want to see a pumpkin launched out of sight from a 40 foot canon, you’ll need to drive a bit.
Williams is betting you will.