It’s Friday, October 13th, and one year ago to the day I sat down with the larger-than-life Gene the Pumpkin Man. The experience was so great, I thought I’d do it again! Of course, I knew I could not recreate the special time we shared, but at least I could check in and see how he and his Kalamazoo-based farm were doing.
An Interview with Gene the Pumpkin Man
Last I saw Gene, he wore his iconic orange hat and an orange button-down. This year was no different. “If I wore black, green, or white, no one would remember me,” he said.
And so, Gene has been almost exclusively wearing orange for the last 40-some years. This is but one of many reasons he has been affectionately nicknamed ‘Gene the Pumpkin Man’ – without a doubt, he will hold the moniker evermore.
The Michigan Centennial Farm Program recognizes farms that have remained in the same family for 100 years or more and highlights the farm’s contributions to the state.
A Michigan Centennial Farm; Time Brings Change
According to Gene, life on the designated Michigan Centennial Farm has been “paradise.” His prosperous family farm has been persisting for over 100 years largely because of a simple suggestion.
They had been farming pickles and navy beans for many years when a 21-year-old Gene asked, “Dad, why don’t we try pumpkins and squash?”
As one might imagine, the farmstead has seen a lot of change since that recommendation was made 66 years ago. Yes, that’s right, Gene is 87 years young.
When they first started growing squash and pumpkins there were only two kinds of each available; Hubbard and Acorn squash, Connecticut Field and Pie Pumpkin. Today, the seed catalog features a page or two of squash and several pages of pumpkin.
It used to be you could buy a pound of pumpkin seeds for $2, now certain varieties of pumpkins will run you $200 a pound. Gene the Pumpkin Man raises most of all the winter squash and a fair number of varieties of pumpkins.
As proud as Gene is of how far the farm has come in one generation, he is just as thankful. “I am so grateful to not only my parents but for what my grandparents and great-grandparents have done, the physical labor, so I could do what I’ve done with machinery. Dad had two horses, one plow, and walked for two days. I had 105 horses, six plows, in an air-conditioned cab and finished in two hours.”
High-end pumpkins like the Winter Luxury are beautiful and superb for eating; it boasts to have the best, velvety texture for a perfect pie.
One of the Largest Pumpkin Retailers in Michigan
Things may have gotten better for farmers in that regard, but the profession has always been challenging. As one of the largest pumpkin retailers in Michigan, pushing 200 tons of produce the last several seasons, I asked Gene to take part in a bit of fill-in-the-blank-type questioning:
Being a pumpkin farmer is fabulous. He went on to add interesting, enjoyable, and unique.
Being a pumpkin farmer is not easy. Ultimately, the farm will make it or break it in just six weeks.
As an example of an uneasy time, Gene referenced the nationwide drought in 1988. Gene the Pumpkin Man had nothing, green pumpkins wouldn’t sell. Gene had to go to a pumpkin broker, no kidding, his name was Charlie Brown. “He got me pumpkins and I have no idea where they came from.”
Gene is a Fan-Favorite
It appears times are satisfactory now. It’s a good thing, too, because Gene the Pumpkin Man’s farm is a tradition for many on the west side of Michigan.
Gene can’t go to his favorite stores without experiencing some hoopla! When Gene has an errand to run, he is stopped by at least 15 enthusiasts.
In fact, while I was visiting with Gene, an admirer knocked on the door of the self-proclaimed “pumpkin room” (a finished, enclosed front porch of sorts, decked out in pumpkin decor) to check on him. The devotee stated he hadn’t seen him in a while at the grocery store and wanted to say hello.
No worries, friend, it’s October; the busiest time of year for Gene!
Gene the Pumpkin Man is known in other parts of the world, too. Thanks to Western Michigan University’s exchange student program, Gene meets people from around the world. He has encountered patrons from New Zealand, Holland (the country 😉), Australia, and England.
The Man Behind the Pumpkin
Gene feels very blessed to be sure. It’s hard to believe, but another man came to the door during my appointment. He visited the farm a week prior and had $35 worth of pumpkins picked out not realizing credit cards weren’t accepted. The man gave Gene $50 and apologized he couldn’t come sooner to pay what he owed, insisting Gene keep the change.
This sparked Gene to share several instances of supporters being generous. One was a 95-year-old woman whom Gene described as “sharp as a tack.” She rolled a wagon of product over for Gene to perform his checkout method of “eye-balling.”
When he said $20 she readily expressed her consternation. “Well that’s the problem, you’re not charging enough!” She handed Gene $50. Gene says things like this happen often and he is humbled by the magnanimity of his customers.
Living Out a Country Song
Gene’s life story from top to bottom is nearly the exact embodiment of a country song. If you think I’m being facetious here, I’m not. I’ll show you, with a slight change of words to this Jason Aldean tune you can get to know Gene the Pumpkin Man that much more…
That [drought] back in [‘88]
Sure did take a toll on his family
But he stayed strong and carried on
Just like his dad and granddad did before him
On his knees every night he prays
Please let my crops and children grow
‘Cause that’s all he’s ever known
He just takes the tractor another round“Amarillo Sky” by Jason Aldean
And pulls the plow across the ground
And sends up another prayer
He says, “Lord I never complain, I never ask why
But please don’t let my dreams run dry
Underneath, underneath this Amarillo sky”
Visit Gene the Pumpkin Man this season, 10 AM – 7 PM every day through October 31.
Region: Southwest Michigan
Address: 22637 M-43, Kalamazoo, MI 49009
- Bales of Straw
- Indian Corn
- Sunflower Heads
- Honey & Pumpkin Butter (available self-serve, all year round)
- YES Family Fun
- YES Photo Ops
- NO admission fee
- NO parking fee
Pro Tip: Bring cash or check as credit cards are not accepted here.