Lush green pumpkin plants blanket the countryside near Keenes, Ill. (pop. 99), where workers walk through fields snipping bright orange jewels from the vines. Within hours, the pumpkins will be on their way to supermarkets across America in time for Halloween.
"It's a bumper crop. We had a wet planting season, but overall this is the best pumpkin crop I've seen," says Sarah Frey Talley, 32, president of Frey Farms, the largest pumpkin producer in the United States.
Before the picking ends, she and husband Justin, four brother-partners—John, Leonard, Harley and Ted—and a small army of farm workers will harvest more than 5 million pumpkins.
In September, on the first day of the harvest, workers gathered the fresh-cut pumpkins, affixed Frey Farms labels to each fruit and loaded them into cardboard shipping crates. By the time Oct. 31 arrives, most of the large, orange orbs will be carved into Halloween jack-o-lanterns or used for fall decorative displays.
"Pumpkins are such a simple pleasure," Talley says. "You look at a field of pumpkins and can't help but smile."
Talley's produce business took root as a child when she and her brothers helped their mother with the family's produce business, buying watermelons and cantaloupes from farmers in southern Indiana and selling them to stores near their family farm in Keenes.
"I took my first melon order when I was 8," Talley says. "Mom dropped me off at IGA in Centralia. I found the produce manager and said, 'Mom's out back at the loading dock. How many melons do you want?' I took the order and collected the money."
For Talley, peddling produce became more than pocket money. It became her passion. At 16, as soon as she could drive a pickup, Talley took over the route. She grew it from 12 customers to 150 by the time she was 19. To supplement her summertime melon money, she planted 20 acres of pumpkins while attending Frontier Community College in nearby Fairfield (pop. 5,421).
"This is traditional farming country—corn and soybeans—and people couldn't imagine what I was doing," she says.
Risk-taking, hard work and good customer service paid off in 1997 when Talley negotiated a contract with the newly opened Wal-Mart distribution center in Olney, Ill. (pop. 8,631).
"Wal-Mart is near and dear to my heart because I got my first break there," she says. "They didn't care about my gender or my age. They only cared that I could deliver the product."
Talley, who already had proven her dependability with three years of delivering melons and pumpkins directly to several Wal-Mart stores, received a contract with the nation's largest retailer to supply three truckloads of pumpkins twice a week.
"At that point I was pulling a trailer behind my pickup," Talley says. "I called my brothers home to help. I said, 'This is our opportunity. This is a chance to have the family working together. We leased trucks and went farm to farm to find growers."
Within two years, four of Talley's brothers had joined her as partners. "We grew our business right along with Wal-Mart," she says.
Today, Frey Farms owns 2,500 acres, leases an additional 2,500 acres and grows a variety of edible and ornamental crops, including corn and gourds. The family-owned company also hauls pumpkins directly to stores or distribution centers in its own fleet of tractor-trailers, delivering to retailers big and small, including Whole Foods, Meijer, Kroger, Roundys and Rural King.
"It's a lot of work. It gets done rain or shine," says Ted Frey, 34, about the harvesting of 3,000 acres of pumpkins on farms in southern Illinois and southern Indiana.
Pumpkin seeds are planted each June, and as many as 175 migrant workers help during the six-week harvest when the ripe fruit is picked, packed and shipped. "It's crunch time," says Alan Shelby, 34, one of Frey Farms' field managers. "Nobody wants pumpkins after Halloween and we don't want to disc them under."
During the harvest, pumpkins are sorted by size, loaded into crates and hauled to warehouses in Keenes and Poseyville, Ind. (pop. 1,187), aboard trailers and old school buses whose sides have been removed.
Along with large pumpkins for jack-o-lanterns, Frey Farms also grows smaller pie pumpkins for Libbys pumpkin packing plant in Morton, Ill. (pop. 15,198), heirloom pumpkins, cantaloupes and watermelons.
"We're always looking for niches," says John Frey, 36. Last year, Frey Farms sold 200,000 decorated pumpkins with painted faces. This year, the company is selling pumpkin decorating kits, which provide a fun family activity.
"Though the fall pumpkin harvest is hectic, it's a favorite time of year for the entire family. We hit the Fourth of July with watermelons and Labor Day with cantaloupes," John Frey says. "Pumpkins are that last hurrah."
As for Talley, she loves being queen of the greatest pumpkin patch in America and growing the orange orbs that will decorate porches across the nation. She wrote a book, For the Love of Pumpkins, devoted to her favorite fruit, and often brings her sons, Luke, 4, and Will, 2, to the patch so they can scamper among the pumpkins and pick a few of their own.
"I have the coolest job on the planet," she says.