Fresno’s Pumpkin King Struggles to Supply Region as Drought Takes Toll
Wayne Martin stands in his Pumpkin King Pumpkin Patch in Fresno. (Alice Daniel/KQED)
Wayne Martin stands tall among hundreds of fleshy orange gourds that cover the ground of his pumpkin patch in Fresno. He greets customers with an easy charm that comes from 31 years in the business.
“Hi folks, welcome to the Pumpkin King Pumpkin Patch. How are you today?”
Martin is Fresno’s Pumpkin King.
“Have you been here before?” he asks a family with several young children.
“Yes, for many years,” the father says.
“Me too!” Martin says, laughing.
It's not uncommon to see return customers, Martin says. “I have a lot of customers coming in saying, ‘I can remember coming here as a baby,’ and they’re here now with their babies.”
And Martin knows his pumpkins. He used to grow them, but these days he’s solely a pumpkin broker. He buys and sells about 2 million pounds of pumpkins a year. Typically, he meets demands with gourds from California. But this year, because of the drought, he had to cross state lines.
“It was very tough for us to find enough pumpkins, so we’re bringing them out of state,” Martin says. “If it wasn’t for the pumpkins I’m bringing out of Oregon, I would be running short this year.”
He says the drought has hit small growers in California the hardest.
“There’s at least four or five small farms around Fresno I used to do business with that are gone.”
He’s referring to the boutique you-pick pumpkin patches that locals returned to year after year, the ones with hay bales and corn mazes. He says one farmer moved out of state, while others retired or just quit farming pumpkins.
Martin says it’s the same in Los Angeles, where a lot of small urban farmers just can’t afford to pay the fines they would accrue using metered water. Some of these farmers, in the “agritainment” business, still operate festive patches with pony rides and caramel corn. But they truck in stemmed pumpkins, instead of offering you-pick varieties.
“We’ve hauled a tremendous amount of pumpkins to Southern California this year because most of the pumpkin farmers down there have simply given up,” Martin says.
Still, some farmers with healthy wells have had bumper crops, especially in places like Manteca, near Modesto, and the Central Coast. And there’s one farmer, Alan Changala, whose pumpkin patch in the Central Valley is drawing pickers from miles around.
Changala says he’s had to cut back on growing other crops because of the drought, but his pumpkin ranch, about 50 miles north of Bakersfield in Porterville, is thriving. He says he grows about 3,500 pumpkins to the acre, and he’s got 50 acres of pumpkins.
That’s enough for Changala to sell to pumpkin patches in Southern California, where the water is really scarce.
But here’s something different -- while the drought has been tricky for some growers here, canning pumpkin farmers in the Midwest have had the opposite problem: too much rain.
So much so that Libby’s, the company that cans most of the pumpkin puree in the United States, reports much lower yields than usual. Fresno Pumpkin King Wayne Martin’s advice? Stock up now.
“If you need pumpkin for your Thanksgiving pie,” he says, “you better get down and get it now because they’re gonna run out.”
Or just get a fresh pumpkin, he adds, and learn how to make your own pumpkin puree.