In the pumpkin trade, it all comes down to stem size. To capture the ideal Jack-o-lantern aesthetic, a thick stem is key. That’s what Jon Goldstein, co-owner of the Piedmont Avenue Pumpkin Patch at 4414 Piedmont Ave., thinks.
So stay away from the ones up for sale at chain stores, he says. Their stems are too wimpy, or even non-existent. Instead, the ones he sells have the impressive girth fit for a front porch or sidewalk.
According to the United States Department of Agriculture, Americans purchased 1.4 billion pounds of pumpkin in 2010, and that number has been increasing. The USDA says that works out to 4.6 pounds per person.
So if the Piedmont Pumpkin Patch sees a couple thousand customers a year, by Goldstein’s estimates, that means the patch will pump almost 10,000 pounds of the orange stuff by the time Halloween rolls around. It’s a good thing Oakland is home to a flagship program, helmed by the East Bay Municipal Utility District, that converts pumpkin waste into renewable energy.
After a friend told him that running a pumpkin patch was a good business, Goldstein started his own with co-proprietor Robbin Lee in 1996. It later expanded; they now sell Halloween decorations in an adjacent rental property and run a nightly haunted house. Goldstein and his team spend 10 to 14 hours a day at the patch in the days before Halloween. During the off-season, he works as a sound engineer, a trade that came in handy for wiring the hall of horrors.
Today, the Piedmont patch is small but heavily stocked with bulbous globes from Pescadero in San Mateo County and Escalon in San Joaquin, some greener or lumpier or just plain stranger-looking than others. Meanwhile, inside, the Halloween store sells every sort of decoration an amateur cryptkeeper could want: animatronic spiders, plastic skulls, a wide variety of Angry Birds merchandise.
None of the trimmings end up at Goldstein’s own home, though.
“I put a few pumpkins in front,” he says, laughing. “All the decorations are here. We help everyone else decorate. You could drive around probably a two-mile radius and half the decorations here are from our pumpkin patch over the years.”
At the Piedmont patch, the pumpkins are placed in rows on a floor of hay, priced in permanent marker by size. The smallest cost $1, and you’ll dish out up to $40 for the big ones. And they can get really, really big. A recycling company once took home a 500 pounder, but this year’s growing season wasn’t so fruitful: the king of the current selection tops out at 105 pounds. That’s nothing compared to the 1,985 pound behemoth that broke California records at the Half Moon Bay Pumpkin Weigh-off this year.
Goldstein notes that an uncarved pumpkin can last until Valentine’s Day, but that a carved one will survive just a few days, depending on the weather. “If you can [carve] it the day before, two days before, that’s much better,” he says. “Just draw on it now.”
Weekdays are usually slow at the patch, which makes it the perfect time, for local schools to arrange class field trips. This week alone, 26 groups are expected to stop by.
Patricia Reilley, a teacher at Piedmont Avenue Elementary School has brought her third-grade class to the pumpkin patch since 2000. A veteran of horrors herself — before this year, she used to host a “haunted hallway” at the school during the Piedmont neighborhood’s annual Halloween block party — Reilley sees the trip as a teaching opportunity.
“I spend a lot of time preparing them for it so that third graders get over being scared,” she says. She even brings props into the classroom in the days before the visit, hoping to desensitize them ahead of time.
Before they’re led into the haunted house, Goldstein gives Reilley’s class a short lecture on different pumpkins, explaining the differences between cheese (it looks like a cheese wheel, hence the name), jarrahdale (an Australian variety with yellow flesh), and the complicatedly named Marina Di Chioggia (not surprisingly, an Italian heirloom).
Afterward, Reilley treats each of her students to a small pumpkin. They get their very own pair of vampire fangs too, which a few place in their mouths immediately. Adults can get fangs on their visits as well, Goldstein says — if they “like” the patch on Facebook.
Goldstein jokes that the free pumpkins are the best part of his job, but really, it’s the time with the kids, he says.
Most of the classes that come in react the same way as Ms. Reilley’s, although Goldstein says preschoolers aren’t quite so loud about it. And they take home smaller pumpkins.