D. Allan Kerr
Sometimes we get so overwhelmed with cynicism and selfishness that we almost numb ourselves to the good things that are happening right in front of us. And believe me, a lot of good is happening here.
For example, if you buy your Halloween pumpkin at First United Methodist Church in Portsmouth this month, you will receive an excellent product that will benefit a local community which in turn helps several home organizations. But you also notably support the Navajo Nation in New Mexico and an extraordinary fundraiser in North Carolina.
But first, for the sake of transparency, I should acknowledge that I have strong family ties with this particular Methodist Church. My old man, Rev. Dr. David Kerr, was a pastor there with my mom Faye for a decade in the 80s and 90s.
That was back when Pease Air Force Base was still active, so it was a prosperous time for the Church with some really exceptional parishioners. My people had great times there and met a lot of wonderful people. I got married there once, had a couple of children baptized there, so I have a personal connection too, although until recently I wasn’t inside those walls for a long time.
So yes, I want this over 200 year old institution known as the First UMC to continue to thrive. But other than that, it’s still a pretty cool story.
It’s actually a story that begins in the 1970s when Richard and Janice Hamby signed a handshake agreement to allow another Methodist church in North Carolina to sell pumpkins the Hambys had grown over three acres. In return, the farmers shared the proceeds with this church.
According to their website www.pumpkinsusa.com, the Hamby family today has similar partnerships with 1,000 other nonprofits across the country, “the 25 denominations of churches and youth groups, scouts, schools, fraternities, habitat groups and other civic” organizations. “
The Navajo came into the picture after Hurricane Hugo hit North Carolina in 1989, forcing the family to relocate operations to the Navajo Nation Reservation in Farmington, New Mexico. The organization, now known as Pumpkin Patch Fundraisers, grows approximately three square kilometers of pumpkins on the reservation and employs approximately 700 Indians during the harvest season in September and October. Their full-time off-season employees are also all Indians, which is significant in a region where unemployment is 42 percent.
In Portsmouth, the way it works is that First UMC sends your order to Pumpkin Patch Fundraisers, who then send their pumpkins here in good faith without prepayment. Community members and volunteers will display the product in the front yard of their 129 Miller Avenue location in mid-September, keeping Pumpkin Patch updated on their sales and requesting new orders when needed.
Believe it or not, there are 25 different types of pumpkin, in many different sizes and even colors beyond the traditional orange, including snow white. I was surprised to learn that the New Mexico deserts are ideal for growing pumpkins because of “high altitude, dry air, and limited insect populations,” according to the Pumpkin Patch website.
First UMC member (and longtime family friend) Susan Richards says the local relationship with Pumpkin Patch Fundraisers began in 2004 when the church received a postcard from the organization about its program and “decided to do it.” In the middle of its 17th year with Pumpkin Patch, the event became their largest annual fundraiser, raising more than $ 187,000 in church coffers during that time.
Last year was First UMC’s most profitable yet, with a stake of nearly $ 17,000. If total sales for the season exceed $ 30,000, the Church will receive 40% of profits; If the total is between $ 20,000 and $ 30,000, the Church receives 35%.
The remainder goes back to Pumpkin Patch to cover the cost of growing, harvesting and shipping their produce. “Farmers take the rotten and leftover pumpkins to feed their animals on November 1st, so all pumpkins are used,” Richards said recently via email.
The first UMC identified so much with this annual event that it became known as the “Pumpkin Church,” she noted.
“Our Pumpkin Patch has grown to be our largest reach in the community, with many loyal customers telling us they only buy from us because they care what their purchases support,” said Richards. “This year has been a mix of annual customers, new customers who recently moved to Portsmouth, have been driving by for years and finally stopped by, people from other states who have seen the pumpkins.”
The proceeds from these sales allow the church to remain open seven days a week to community organizations, including various AA groups, Planet Rangers afterschool and summer camps for school children in Portsmouth, adult painting classes and music rehearsals. End 68 Hours of Hunger uses the church to store and package food to ensure local students do not go hungry, and First UMC’s own First Kids program is helping New Hampshire with foster children.
Volunteers help the sales booth all week – my always sprightly 80-year-old mom even took a break recently – but the church needs more help to keep the patch running. Interested parties can register for a 2 or 3 hour shift at https: signup.com/group/92712616081.
The First UMC Pumpkin Patch is open Monday through Friday from 12.30pm to 6.30pm. Saturday and Columbus Day from 9:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m.; and Sunday from 11:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m.
And remember, you’re not just buying a pumpkin – you’re helping a lot of people too.
D. Allan Kerr from Kittery is a longtime columnist on Seacoast Sunday. The views expressed are those of the author.