Califonia Bountiful

Gourds aplenty

September/October 2021 California Bountiful magazine

Wayne Bishop looks forward to a great pumpkin season

Wayne Bishop's farm features pumpkins of all sizes and colors, not to mention pie. Photo by Ching Lee

Before long, people will be trekking to Bishop's Pumpkin Farm in Wheatland, where Wayne Bishop stands ready to welcome legions of visitors looking for their perfect Halloween pumpkins. Or pies. Or both.

Bishop's family has been operating the patch and its associated attractions since 1973, and farming in the area since long before then. His grandparents came to California from Nebraska during the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. "They were dairy farmers right here in the same area," Bishop said. His late father, Bill, kept farming and now Wayne and his sons carry on. But it was Wayne's mother, Sandy, who got the family into growing gourds.

"My mother had been a teacher, and she planted the first pumpkins because she thought maybe we could get kids to come out on a field trip. That's what our whole business started from," he said. "We just consider ourselves so lucky that we can do something for a living that people really enjoy. You can see that in their faces. There just aren't a lot of things you can do for a living where your customers tell you how much they enjoy it."

Months of work
Pumpkin prep begins in early May, with irrigating and fertilizing the soil; seeds are planted between mid-June and July 1. "Part of that is because of the different maturities," Bishop said, "and then part of it is because we're open for about six weeks before Halloween. We don't necessarily want everything ready to pick on the 15th of September, when the bulk of our guests want to pick pumpkins in October." Most years, he sells well in excess of a million pounds of pumpkins, each weighing anywhere from 5 to 80 pounds.

Pumpkins of many colors
Orange may predominate, but these days, pumpkins come in all kinds of hues. "We have white ones and red ones and blue ones and green ones," Bishop said. "It's actually a lot of fun buying the seeds, because the seed companies come out every year with something new, and it's always fun to try the new stuff." There's even a pink one, called Porcelain Doll; its breeder donates the proceeds to breast-cancer research.

Mmmmmm, pie!
Most any pumpkin makes a good jack-o'-lantern, Bishop said, but Winter Luxury is his go-to variety for pie making. "It has a really thick flesh," he said. "It has a lot of sugar in it naturally, and when you cook it up, it's just really nice and smooth. It's not as stringy as most pumpkins are when you're trying to cook it. There is no other pumpkin that I would recommend for pie."

A slice of farm life
It used to be that most everyone either lived on a farm or had a relative who did, Bishop said. "We have rapidly grown out of that," he said. "Today, most kids do not have a relative that owns a farm that they can visit. We just consider ourselves extremely fortunate that many people have decided that our farm is that farm that they visit. We think that people still have an instinct to go out and harvest something in the fall."

What kinds of pumpkins do young people go for? Bishop said his dad had lots of fun finding out. "He really enjoyed watching when you would bring a class of kids out to the field on a field trip, and watch them select their pumpkins," Bishop said. "It seemed like the smaller the kid, the smaller the pumpkin they would want to choose. And a tall kid might pick a tall, skinny pumpkin."

The rest of the year
After Halloween, the land on which the pumpkins grew is planted in a forage crop for dairy cows. Bishop also has walnuts—and a "hamburger garden." "We have a field where we plant all the crops that it takes to make a hamburger and give the kids a tour of that, and then they get a hamburger lunch," he said. Of course, that was before the COVID-19 pandemic put a stop to field trips. "It's been a real bummer to lose the two seasons of that," he said.

Kevin Hecteman

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