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A Passion for Pumpkins

Staffer’s Va. Patch More Than a Hobby

Tyler Wegmeyer can almost predict what sort of pumpkin a person will pick from the moment they step up to his market stand.

Young girls typically favor the diminutive “Baby Boo,” while grown women often prefer the “Cinderella,” which is good for stacking and home decoration and is particularly trendy at the moment. Keepers of the Y chromosome, meanwhile, like their pumpkins big, irrespective of age.

“We pretty much have every pumpkin broken down by demographic,” he says matter-of-factly.

Wegmeyer, Republican staff director for the House Agriculture subcommittee on general farm commodities and risk management, along with his wife, Harriet, grows more than 20 varieties of pumpkins and gourds (small, unedible pumpkins) on their historic Hamilton, Va., farm, located 55 miles northwest of the District. [IMGCAP(1)]

To say that the Wegmeyers are passionate about farming and pumpkins is an understatement. Both grew up on dairy farms and raised pumpkins as children. Tyler went on to earn a bachelor’s in agricultural economics from Michigan State University, while Harriet, who now serves as communications director for the Fertilizer Institute, specialized in agricultural communication at Cornell University. The couple met when Tyler, at the time an aide to then-Rep. Nick Smith (R-Mich.), was working weekends on a West Virginia dairy farm and Harriet was employed by a milk cooperative of which the farm was a member.

Romance soon blossomed, and when they married three years later, after a courtship nourished on long drives in the Virginia countryside, the groom’s cake was, naturally, in the form of a John Deere tractor.

It wasn’t until their first year as husband and wife, however, that Tyler began seriously planting pumpkins — an idea which had come to him the year before after a particularly expensive pumpkin-procuring outing.

“It was Halloween and Harriet wanted some pumpkins so I went out to get some pumpkins … and I spent way too much money,” Tyler, now 30, admits.

Two large pumpkins had set Tyler back “like $40. … I thought to myself: ‘This is really something I don’t want to do. … I can grow pumpkins, I did it as a kid.’”

The next year, his planting yielded 450 pumpkins, and the couple began selling at a local farmers’ market.

“Pumpkins are a very happy product. The expressions you get are just priceless. … That’s what really inspires us,” Tyler says.

In June 2004, when the Wegmeyers moved from their “farmette” in Round Hill, Va., to their current 25-acre spread in Hamilton, “basically the first day we were there we planted pumpkins,” says Harriet. “Forget about moving in.”

“We start around Flag Day … and we stagger out [the planting] all the way to the first and second week of July,” Wegmeyer says. Mid-September is “prime” harvesting time, with most of their 4 acres of pumpkins picked by early October, though they set aside a small patch for friends and neighbors to pick their own.

On Thursday nights, and on Saturday and Sunday mornings in September and October, the couple load up their Ford F-150 pickup truck and head to one of three Loudoun County farmers’ markets. “We sit on the tailgate of our truck and sell pumpkins,” Tyler says.

As of last week, the couple was “pretty close” to selling all of this year’s crop of roughly 4,000 pumpkins, ranging in price from $2 to $8.

“When I was growing up, I would sell a pickup load for $20,” says Tyler. “Now I sell three for $20.”

His boss, subcommittee Chairman Rep. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.), says Tyler, the only current farmer to work on the panel, brings a unique perspective to his work. When farm groups visit, “there’s an immediate connection between him as a farmer and wheat farmers in Kansas or rice farmers in California. Farmers are farmers,” Moran says. He adds: I assumed when I learned he raised pumpkins that he had a garden plot. … This is not just a hobby farm.”

Indeed, when Moran returned to Washington, D.C., after the Columbus Day recess he found about a dozen pumpkins covering his desk, a gift from Tyler. “I had them cleared off my desk so I could work,” the five-term Representative laughs.

While some pumpkinistas aim to grow the largest specimen (the current world record of 1,469 pounds was set this month in Altoona, Pa.), Tyler says his goal is quality, not size. “There’s people out there where this is kind of like a sport to them,” he says.

And anyway, Tyler’s largest pumpkin, a 200-pound “Dill’s Atlantic Giant,” is already off the market. “There’s this one woman at the Cascades, Va., farmers’ market that comes back every year and wants our biggest pumpkin. We grow the largest pumpkin for her.”

The Wegmeyers have also attracted something close to a cult following among at least one customer. For the past two years, a woman has bought pumpkins and named them Tyler and Harriet, 28-year-old Harriet laughs.

Tyler, who says that someday he might get into the farming business full time, would like to expand in the future — either grow more pumpkins or possibly branch out into “higher-value” crops such as strawberries and blueberries. (In addition to pumpkins, the Wegmeyers sell corn stalks, sunflowers, Indian corn and hay. “We pride ourselves in specializing in all the fall [decorating] necessities,” Tyler quips.)

In the meantime, there’s always the latest endeavor: beekeeping. “The main reason I got into beekeeping is because of pollination for my pumpkins,” he says. “Because it increases your yield so much.”

As for Halloween night, the Wegmeyers, who say they aren’t party people, will be at home with a bowl of Snickers candy bars, hoping for some visitors to their relatively isolated 1850s farm house.

“We are the pumpkin people, but we live so far out on a dirt road that we don’t ever get any trick-or-treaters,” says Tyler, though he certainly doesn’t mind eating the leftovers.

Harriet adds: “We do get candy and we do put the light on and we wait.”

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