A day in the 175-acre pumpkin patch at Cooksey Farms
November 5, 2013
Each October, millions of people flock to groceries stores, roadside stands and farms to pick up their perfect pumpkin for the year. Time is taken to carefully select just the right one for the carving in mind.
Many people, however, are unaware of what it takes to get that pumpkin from the patch to the porch.
Cooksey Farms, located in Roggen, Colo., grows commercial pumpkins for people across the U.S.
"We've been raising pumpkins since I was just a kid," said Dustin Cooksey, one of several family members who works on the farm. "We started with just five acres or so growing pumpkins and squash for a neighbor/friend, just trying to figure it out. We grew pretty slow at first, but over the last 10 years have grown quite rapidly up to our current size."
Getting a large corporate company to sell your produce isn't easy.
"With the pumpkins, we have to bid the business every year," Cooksey said. "It's a little bit of work to jump through all the corporate hoops that come with a retailer like Walmart. But it's really about maintaining those relationships with the buyers."
The family now grows 175 acres of pumpkins.
Each year, they sow their seeds into the ground, and throughout the summer they water, weed and care for the pumpkins until the fall, when they are ready to harvest.
Pumpkins have their own challenges to produce.
"There are several challenges to growing pumpkins on this scale and scope. First is bidding and getting the business," Cooksey said. "Then it's making sure we can meet the delivery requirements of our contract."
He continued, "There are many things we can't control, since Mother Nature doesn't provide us with perfect growing conditions. We do what we can, and leave the rest up to nature."
The items they can manage relate to the actual plant itself.
"We can manage our plant populations, fertilizer and water inputs, and planting dates to manage harvest timing and size and shape of the pumpkins. We use lots of labor and timely operations to manage pests like weeds, insects, and fungi."
He added, "Mother Nature still has to work for you though. This year we had several hailstorms, which first caused us to have to replant, which meant more green pumpkins, and then we had other storms, which caused scaring, which the buyers don't like. We have to take what we're given and be thankful for that."
Scarred pumpkins are ones that they can't sell, and are culled.
"Due to that scaring, there will be a higher percentage of culls this year. When our pumpkins don't meet specifications, we can move a few of our seconds to various fall festivals and things like that," Cooksey said.
The pumpkins that don't get delivered to the grocery stores are used elsewhere.
"One of the coolest things I have done is delivering pumpkins to an HOA fall festival. We can deliver grain to the elevator and have a sense of accomplishment and pride in feeding the world, but it doesn't compare to a 5-year-old running towards you with a smile, from ear to ear, and eyes the size of silver dollars."
The cull pumpkins that aren't sold don't go to waste.
"The vast majority of our culls get left in the field and our cows get their fill of pumpkin pie. I've seen two or three cows go after one pumpkin and tear it apart trying to get it first. The cows do well on them."
The Cooksey family grows many more crops besides pumpkins.
They grow wheat, hay, corn and millet, and also have 100 cow/calf pairs as well as 1,500 acres of pasture ground they manage. All together, they farm a little more than 10,000 acres.
They grow seed wheat, which is the base wheat that other wheat farmers use to grow their crops.
"It's been about maintaining a reliable quality product first. Then it's been making the right contacts, and networking with other growers and buyers. Once we developed our reputation, the seed basically sells itself," Cooksey said.
He enjoys raising all of the different crops they produce, but especially likes the wheat.
"I don't know if I have a favorite crop, as they all have their good and bad points. I gravitate towards the grain crops though," he said.
He continued, "I love wheat harvest, and have since I can remember. It's long hours and stressful, but something about it is just cool. Corn is fun in that we can do some interesting tests with new products that the economics of dry land wheat doesn't always allow for."
Fall is a busy time for the Cooksey family, as they are not only harvesting pumpkins, but several other crops as well.
"There is a feeling that goes with harvest that is hard to describe. Anyone that has experienced it knows what I mean. It's the sounds and the smells and the sunsets. It's the comraderie of everyone working together to get the crop in. With the fall harvests, you get that crisp air feeling. You just can't beat it."
Cooksey is currently in the Colorado Agricultural Leadership Program, class 11, and his dad, Jim Cooksey, was a part of the program in class five. He is a strong advocate for his family's farm and agriculture in general.
"We need to tell our story and teach people about agriculture, not just because we think they should know, but because the public wants to know about ag. They want to know how their food is produced and they want to know that we use our crop protection technologies responsibly. They want to know that we eat from the same field and crop as we would sell them. They want to know that we treat our livestock as humanely and with as little stress as possible," Cooksey explained.
He added, "And if we, the people in the industry that do it each and every day, don't teach them, who will? Animal rights groups? Wikipedia? The Internet? That's not who I want telling my story."
Cooksey's family has farmed in the same general area for more than 100 years, and several different generations of the Cooksey's have been involved in the family-run operation.
"The agricultural industry is what I grew up in, and I wouldn't have it any other way. The people I get to work with are the best kind of people you'll find anywhere. In ag, we care about our neighbors and everybody pitches in when there's a problem," he said.
Cooksey spent many years growing up in 4-H and FFA, and earned his American FFA Degree in 2004, which is the highest degree a FFA member can receive. Cooksey believes the fifth paragraph of the FFA Creed, which was written by E.M. Tiffany, said it best.
"I believe that American agriculture can and will hold true to the best traditions of our national life and that I can exert an influence in my home and community which will stand solid for my part in that inspiring task."❖