It’s that time of year again, when goblins cavort in secluded dells, and children call at your house for a consignment of sweets. At least, that’s the way it works in North America and much of Europe; I really don’t know what to expect here in Southern Africa, where my work has brought me.
At home, my son will be out on a trick-or-treat mission, obtaining sweets from the neighbours. The universal sign of tolerance for small children making such visitations is of course the carved jack-o’-lantern, left by the doorstep with a candle burning inside… but where do our pumpkins come from? They’re originally a North American vegetable, and their incorporation in festivities of a distinctly American character suggests that they might be imports.
In fact, pumpkins can and do grow just about anywhere. The supermarket price of £5 or more for any decent-sized specimen is a little bit excessive, as my recent visit to a farm near Pickering, North Yorkshire revealed. The things were just sitting there, out in the field… in their hundreds.
My background is in manufacturing, and I’m not used to saleable products just popping up out of the ground. In my world, you cast, cut, grind, drill, weld, measure, polish or whatever… production is hard work. You don’t just go out into a field and pick up the finished goods.
Pumpkins were carefully loaded into the bucket of a JCB, driven about two hundred metres… and delivered to the farm shop. If you want to talk about ‘food miles’, this is about as low as they come.
Are they still ‘food miles’ if you don’t use the pumpkin as food? I’d say yes, because an awful lot of the food that we buy in the UK ends up as waste anyway. It’s a shame in this case because there really is nothing quite as nice as a bowl of pumpkin soup on an autumn day. Tomorrow, when the supermarkets are selling their remaining stock off for a fraction of the original price, that’s the time to make soup.
A very fine specimen indeed, my pumpkin was just £2. Apparently, there had been a bumper crop this year, although BBC radio reported that not very far away in Lincolnshire, 40% of pumpkins were rotting in the fields, due to wet weather. This is the difficulty that growers face: the products might require much less intervention than manufactured goods, but farmers have far less control over conditions – as evidenced by the UK today having its hottest Halloween since records began. That random element has got to be a problem when your products have to mature exactly on time to reach the shops shortly before October 31st… or else the value of the crop will fall to almost nothing.