Pumpkins picked: End of the vine for the Wilcoxes of Intervale Farm

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NEW GLOUCESTER — For every thing there is a season.

This month at Intervale Farm, it is time to sell the year’s harvest of pumpkins and gourds at the popular farm stand.

But it’s also time for its owners to close a 20-year chapter of their lives.

This year marks the last time Jan and Carl Wilcox will plant, harvest and sell their renowned variety of decorative fall fruits, most of which have already sold out.

“We want to see what other people do in the fall,” said Jan, 52. “Life is short and I don’t want to do this forever.”

For the past 23 years, the Wilcoxes have lived in their circa-1810 brick, federal-style farmhouse, on 118 rolling acres along Route 231. They’ve raised two children into late adolescence. They’ve also raised countless pumpkins and gourds in more than 100 varieties. 

Over the decades, they’ve been featured in magazines and attracted regular, yearly customers from Massachusetts, Connecticut and even Ohio. They’ve sold pumpkins as large as 550 pounds and as small as 2 ounces.

In addition to jack-o’-lantern-style pumpkins, the Wilcoxes’ pumpkins have been used as bowling balls, carved into boats, and shot from air-powered cannons. A 10-inch diameter, perfectly round La Estrella pumpkin, for instance, can fetch as much as $200 for the World Championship Punkin Chunkin, an event where pumpkins are launched a half-mile or farther.

Perhaps surprisingly, Intervale Farm pumpkins can also serve as food, including five varieties of pie pumpkins and two varieties known for their high-quality, hull-free seeds (a more pleasant eating experience).

But beginning next year, the couple plans to enjoy Maine’s most colorful season on their own terms.

They might choose to visit the Common Ground Fair, an event they haven’t seen since the early 1990s, said Carl, 51. They might also attend the Damariscotta Pumpkinfest and Regatta, to witness firsthand the annual event where the fruits of their labor have been carved into vessels and launched into cold tidal waters. 

And it is hard labor, Carl said: Anyone who thinks growing pumpkins is a simple matter of dropping seeds into the soil is roundly mistaken.

The work begins in April by tilling a two-acre plot. Next, they plant the seeds by Memorial Day; manage pests and weeds throughout the summer; harvest for three weeks beginning around Labor Day; and sell the fruit through October until it’s gone. Then, over the winter, they determine the number of seeds and varieties for the next planting season.

The annual cost of seeds ranges between $600 and $800. For the past seven years, they have completely sold out.

The Wilcoxes won’t say how much the operation earns each year, but Jan offered a summary.

“If we went to ‘Shark Tank,'” she said, “they would laugh. They would laugh us right off the stage.”

To keep the operation running much longer, the Wilcoxes would have to rebuild their tractor engine, a factor that contributed to the couple’s decision to close shop.

The Wilcoxes – Jan, originally from Indiana, has a professional background in geophysics; Carl, a native Mainer, is an environmental waste-water engineer – started farming for practical reasons. When they moved into the home from Gray, the land was assessed by the town as “its highest and best use,” Carl recalled.

“The tax burden was phenomenal,” he said. 

By raising crops and earning income as a farm, however, the land could be assessed at a lower agricultural rate – a move that required a minimum 10-year commitment from the couple. Twenty years later, the Wilcoxes also raise grass-fed beef, which alone meets the assessor’s agricultural standard, Carl said.

Jan credits variety for their 20-year run as crop farmers. The couple raises about 100 varieties every year and sells at least 50 at any given time during the harvest season.

“I’m going to miss going out in the field and seeing what kinds of crazy gourds have come about,” she said. “They can really have some interesting shapes, and I’m a known gourd-hoarder.”

In the barn, Jan has about 100 gourds that she’s collected over the years, neatly arranged on stout wooden beams.

Falmouth resident Lisa Leslie also appreciates the aesthetic value of Intervale’s signature crops. For the past five years, her family has traveled to the farm to gather decorations for their annual Halloween Party. 

“This is something we plan a whole weekend around. It’s not just buying pumpkins, it’s a whole family experience,” she said on a recent visit to Intervale. “It’s like stepping back in time a little bit.”

Leslie’s fiance, Gil Guerin, agreed.

“We hope to find a replacement site for our annual trip,” he said. “It’d be nice to find a place to buy pumpkins other than Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods – ‘Disney,’ as I call them.”

Jan, who also works as a web content manager for School Administrative District 15, said she hopes to find a charming spot next year when she’ll have to purchase retail pumpkins for the first time this millennium. If she doesn’t find the right spot, she might have to resort to a less-bucolic experience.

“If you see someone wearing dark sunglasses at the (pumpkin) bin at Wal-Mart,” she joked, “it might be me.” 

Ben McCanna can be reached at bmccanna@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @BenMcCanna.

Sidebar Elements

Carl and Jan Wilcox (and golden retriever Midge) stand under a rainbow Oct. 18 at Intervale Farm in New Gloucester. For the past 20 years, the couple has grown and sold pumpkins and gourds; this year, however, marks their final crop, most of which has already been sold.

Gill Guerin and fiancee Lisa Leslie, of Falmouth, inspect a gourd Oct. 12 at Intervale Farm.

Sandi Amorello and Tim Bryant, of Cape Elizabeth, browse the dwindling selection of pumpkins and gourds on Oct. 12 at Intervale Farm.