Once fall arrives, pumpkins are top-of-mind. And while there are plenty of opportunities to visit U-pick pumpkin patches in the Yakima Valley, many families are accustomed to picking out the perfect pumpkin at a local grocer.
From giant carving pumpkins to mini multicolored pumpkins, if it’s chosen from a grocery store in Washington, the odds are that Travis Nelson and his team at Nelson’s Quality Produce in Toppenish grew it.
Nelson began growing pumpkins for commercial sales in 2009. He started with 4 acres, expanding his farming operation to 160 acres as he tends to everything from sweet corn, tomatoes and cantaloupe to watermelon and asparagus.
Over the past decade, he’s built his commercial pumpkin business into one of the largest in the state.
“I still have stores that have stuck with us when we started this 10 years ago,” said Nelson. “It’s incredible to see the numbers of what stores go through and the differences year to year.”
Nelson’s customer base is vast, spanning Idaho, Montana and Washington.
“We have stores up to Canada, down to Oregon and all the way over to Bellevue. It pretty well covers the whole eastern side of the state,” he said.
Within that area, Nelson delivers pumpkins to the majority of grocery stores in the Yakima Valley, including all the Safeway stores, Wray’s and Fiesta Foods. Nelson also supplies pumpkins to Roots Nursery and Johnson Orchards, along with a variety of other Valley fruit stands and corn mazes.
In addition to a long list of regular clients, Nelson is also receiving calls this year from customers needing to supply their corn mazes or stores due to a pumpkin shortage across Washington.
Nelson tends to approximately 75 acres of pumpkins and squash in the Toppenish area, with fields stretching as far as the eye can see. He grows everything from the typical carving pumpkin for jack-o-lanterns to acorn squash, white pumpkins and mini yellow pumpkins — altogether, 25 varieties of pumpkins and squash.
Nelson also tests 40 to 50 new pumpkin varieties every year.
“Pumpkin breeders actually come out and lay pumpkins to check the characteristics of each variety,” he said.
Each year’s crop begins with starts in a greenhouse in April before being transplanted to the field mid-May.
“We get the product ready earlier in the fall to be the first to market,” Nelson said. “We start delivering pumpkins the last week of August.”
Once harvest kicks off in August, it means round-the-clock work for nine weeks. The team is a well-oiled machine, Nelson said.
Once the pumpkins are deemed ripe enough, workers go through the fields to cut the stems. Then a flat-bed trailer comes through, with workers picking up each pumpkin by hand and tossing it to someone on the trailer to place in a bin.
“We go through and make the first pass to get what’s ripe,” said Nelson. “It’s usually a one-pass deal, but if we’re running low on supply toward the end of the season, there’s typically pumpkins left in the field that have continued to ripen.”
Nelson’s takes the pumpkins directly to stores, where they are typically hand-stacked in a display.
“If the store wants them packaged in bins, we’ll do it. But typically, we like to hand-stack them,” he said.
For Nelson, that direct to store approach reaps the biggest reward.
“We’ll have kids that stop to watch while we’re loading,” said Nelson. “It’s fun, and we meet a lot of people delivering.”
Nelson and his crew don’t get much sleep during harvest and delivery season. But it’s all so those big, orange pumpkins can make their way into the hands of people to celebrate fall in Washington.