Ah, the pumpkin.
What started centuries ago as an annual tradition to ward off evil spirits has now become a multimillion-dollar industry that produces, according to federal data, a lot of waste.
As the story goes, the Celts hollowed out and carved faces on turnips, placing a candle inside to scare away the evil spirits that lurked in the forests. The tradition evolved, and when immigrants arrived in the Americas, they discovered the pumpkin – a prime carving crop.
Now, nearly 2 billion pounds of pumpkins are grown in the United States annually, according to U.S. Department of Energy data from 2014. Of that amount, an estimated 1.3 billion pounds were thrown into the trash instead of being composted or eaten.
But little by little, communities are making strides to follow best practices when it comes to our society’s traditions that typically produce a lot of waste, said Rachel Landis with the Good Food Collective.
“It’s really important we think about waste differently, that it’s not just something we throw away and forget,” she said. “And I think there’s a lot more consciousness about waste.”
La Plata County’s pumpkin production and consumption is by no means on the scale of other places in the country, and compared with all the other threats to the environment, wasted pumpkins are a small factor.
But even in this small sliver of Southwest Colorado, local officials are trying to get residents to reduce their impacts, and most of the farmers who do grow pumpkins try to do so as responsibly as possible.
The James Ranch pumpkin patch, for example, makes a point to grow varieties of the vegetable that are edible, said Joe Wheeling, who runs the patch with his wife, Jenn, the oldest of the James siblings.
Of the 1,000 or so pumpkins grown on the 1-acre patch each year, about 800 are edible.
“They are an excellent, high-quality product,” Joe Wheeling said.
What’s not sold, he said, is fed to the pigs.
Tom Jensen, owner of the Falfa Pumpkin Patch on County Road 221, grows about 2,000 pumpkins a year. Just days before Halloween, Jensen said he had only a hundred or so pumpkins left, ones that have been either destroyed by the cold weather or snacked on by deer.
Any remaining pumpkins, he said, are picked up by farmers to feed to pigs and chickens. And those left behind in the patch decompose and help regenerate the soil for next year.
“Anything that decomposes in that clay is good,” he said.
In Durango and Bayfield, an annual drop-off was started four years ago to prevent bears getting into trouble, said Bryan Peterson with Bear Smart Durango.
“Pumpkins, compared to trash and bird feeders, aren’t our biggest concern in regards to human foods that bears get into,” he said. “But they are yet one more thing that bears find appealing, and pumpkins set out on front porches train bears to come right up to homes.”
Ultimately, the discarded pumpkins are taken to farms and ranches to be used as food for livestock. In 2018, an estimated 300 pumpkins were donated to farmers, said Imogen Ainsworth, sustainability coordinator for the city of Durango.
“They go crazy,” said Darrin Parmenter, director and horticulture agent for the La Plata County Extension Office. “The animals enjoy them for sure.”
Pumpkins are a unique crop for farmers, in that they are one of the only crops produced that are mostly used for decoration as opposed to consumption, Parmenter said.
People can choose alternatives to spice up the Halloween season, like gourds, corn stalks or bales of hay, which can be reused more easily on the landscape. But for traditionalists, composting or using pumpkins as feed are the best options for the environmentally minded.
“Anytime we can reduce poundage or waste into a landfill, it’s a win-win for us,” Parmenter said.