PORTSMOUTH – The biggest and weirdest ones always go first, said Sue Richards.
There are thousands, “literally,” and once chosen for purchase, they’re transported home in a multitude of ways – wagons, baby strollers, vans, tired arms.
Every October, the First United Methodist Church on Miller Avenue morphs into its annual, fleeting identity as the iconic “pumpkin church,” where, boundless and unending, the plump orange vegetable covers the front and side lawns.
Richards is the “patch coordinator” for the massive expanse. She’s held the regal title for 15 years, running the operation she says represents “joy” and is “one of those rare things.”
“It’s a community thing, that’s certainly what it’s turned into,” Richards said. “The loyalty we have is just unbelievable.”
The pumpkins of all shapes and sizes, along with ornamental gourds, are sold affordably, and profits are split between the church and its pumpkin provider – Pumpkins USA.
The national patch fundraisers supported by Pumpkins USA began in 1974 in North Carolina with three acres of pumpkins and a partnership with one church. Today, the organization partners with more than 1,000 organizations across the country to provide them with pumpkins for their fundraisers, and in return receive a portion of the profits.
Farming operations have since been moved to the Navajo Indian Reservation in Farmington, New Mexico, where in cooperation with the Navajo Nation, Pumpkins USA grows 1,200 acres of pumpkins and employs over 700 Native Americans during the harvest months of September and October.
Richards said the First United Methodist Church received an informational postcard from Pumpkins USA in 2004, and that’s when the fundraiser first began. In its initial year, the church ranked among the top 10 patches in the country.
“I knew from the beginning it would be much more than a fundraiser,” said Richards, who lives in Dover.
This year, the church is already on track for its best year yet, having sold $37,000 worth of pumpkins with three more days left to go for the patch. It will close for the season at 6:30 p.m. on Halloween night.
“Based on the amount of interest, the calls, I knew it would probably be our best year ever,” Richards said.
Over the years, the patch has become a multi-generational family tradition. It’s also drawn huge numbers of people from other countries, some of whom have never seen or carved a pumpkin before, Richards said. It attracts passersby, photographers, Halloween buffs and those looking for a seasonal activity.
Landscaping companies come and choose the largest pumpkins, she said, and fill their vehicles with them. The patch has one customer who calls himself “the crazy pumpkin uncle.”
One year, Richards arrived in the morning to find a palette by the road had been run over. A young man later stopped by “in tears” to say he had been driving drunk the night before and ran over the pumpkins on his way home. He apologized, Richards said, and then became a volunteer.
First-graders from Little Harbour School recently walked down one morning for a field trip, each student getting to pick out their own pumpkin.
Even as it rained Wednesday, there was a continuous flow of customers.
In addition to sharing profits with Pumpkins USA, the church uses the funds to support activities taking place inside its building, like the 13 Alcoholics Anonymous groups it hosts, a Dover cheerleading squad that practices there, and an arts and crafts group, as examples.
Richards said several of the AA members have become patch volunteers.
The profits also go to United Methodist missions around the world. Leftover and rotten pumpkins go to local farmers for animal feed.
It is “exhausting but amazing,” Richards said. “Such a joy for the community. A destination.”
Richards, with pumpkins earrings dangling beside her face, said her “heart and soul” goes into the patch every year.
Asked how many pumpkins she currently has at her house, she smiled slyly and held up a single finger.
“One,” she laughed. “I don’t want to take away from anybody. But Nov. 1, it’s fair game.”