The road through the river bottoms near Hartsburg passes rows of dried cornstalks and soybean plants. Amid the expanse of crops that suffered through the summer drought are fields of green dotted with bright orange.
Six weeks ago, Jo and Norlan “Hack” Hackman worried that their pumpkin crop also would suffer. There was a lot riding on the outcome: This year, the Hackmans became the sole providers of pumpkins for the annual Hartsburg Pumpkin Festival, which attracts thousands of visitors.
But late-season rains perked up the pumpkins. Even if they are a little smaller than usual, “they’re better than we anticipated,” Jo Hackman said.
This week, the harvest is in full swing. “We have a lot of orders in and shipments going out, and we have to have a lot for the pumpkin festival, “ said Curt Wheat, 16, one of several teenage boys helping to bring in the crop.
“Are they any good, boys?” Norlan Hackman asked Wednesday as he climbed out of his red pickup into the mud.
“They’re looking pretty good, Hack,” Wheat replied as he hefted a 5-gallon white bucket filled with pie pumpkins onto a wooden trailer.
The crew of local teenagers has been pulling pumpkins from after school until dark every day this week. Each boy carries a pair of “nippers” to snip the stem from the vine after checking to make sure the pumpkin doesn’t have any bad spots.
“This is the big push,” Wheat said as he bent down to snip another gourd.
The work isn’t easy, and the boys don’t make much money. But there’s a sense of excitement in the cool air of autumn as the festival draws near that helps make it all worthwhile.
In addition to weekdays after school, the boys will harvest pumpkins from early morning until nightfall this Saturday and Sunday and all day during the festival weekend to replenish the mounds of pumpkins that have overtaken the yard at the Hackman house in town.
There were so many people at last year’s festival that getting around was difficult.
“Sometimes it takes 10 minutes to get across the road,” Jo Hackman said. She said the family will sell several thousand pumpkins over the festival weekend to folks who come from as far away as Florida.
Though the festival is more than a week away, her yard is alive with people searching for their perfect pumpkin — even as a crew of boys piles out of a pickup and replenishes the supply.