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Pumpkins as therapy

Not only does this seasonal favorite provide a nice sideline business, it helps rehabilitate problem teens

When Mike Firestine’s hopes are squashed, that’s a good thing.

The veteran agricultural lender has a sideline in pumpkins. It’s not your backyard hobby. Firestine, senior vice-president and senior agriculture lending officer at Fulton Bank, Lebanon, Pa., grows thousands of pumpkins annually. He’s done so, commercially, for more than 30 years.

In the beginning, Firestine only sought a way to make his farmland pay better.

“Little niche markets tend to be more profitable than corn and soybeans,” he explains. He and his family chose the seasonal favorites, initially wholesaling these members of the squash family (genus Cucurbita) to nurseries, greenhouses, and stores.

But then folks began spotting his fields adjoining U.S. 422, the Benjamin Franklin Highway, in Womelsdorf, Pa., and asked if he’d let them pick their own.

Why not? he thought. Now he and friends, family, and employees pick the best pumpkins for Firestine’s long-time buyers. Then in September and October the school and family crowd snaps up the rest at holiday time. The culls go to some of the banker’s cattle, who love the crunchy seeds. The u-pick site goes by the name “Teenie’s Pumpkin Patch,” named for Firestine’s wife, Martene.

Firestine, former chairman of the ABA’s Agricultural and Rural Banking Committee, maintains a line of credit himself. Raising pumpkins is a high-cost endeavor. Part of the reason why is that pumpkins face several pests, including the nefarious cucumber beetle. Creating of varieties that will resist these pests means seeds are expensive. Also, a constant spraying program must be maintained to keep the insects and two destructive forms of mildew at bay. All in all, Firestine says you can farm 50 acres of corn for what 20 acres of pumpkins cost.

Pumpkins have done right by Firestine, but he’s found more than money and periodic show victories in his payoff.

“One thing about growing pumpkins is you meet a lot of nice people, and you see them many times over the years,” the banker explains. He’s been at this long enough that he’s employing teens who first visited the farm as kindergartners, who would call him “the pumpkin man” when they spotted him in the community.

But there’s another angle, too. It began with vandalism.

A pair of local kids set fire to a field of oats that Firestine owns. When asked if he would press charges, he thought about it awhile and responded, “I have fields where I have trouble getting rid of the rocks….” His not-so-subtle hint: Let the kids work off their guilt.

The authorities loved the idea. Later, local schools, hearing about that episode, asked Firestine if he’d take on some teens with behavioral problems. He did, putting them to work as “pickers,” “cutters,” “throwers,” and “catchers” at harvest time.

Not all of them changed, but some, given a chance, turned around. Some just needed an adult ear.

“When you’re out in a pumpkin field, you talk,” says Firestine. “And raising pumpkins is a good relief valve for me, too.”

Steve Cocheo

Steve Cocheo’s career in business journalism has taken him to all 50 states and nearly every corner of banking in institutions of all sizes. He is executive editor of ABA Banking Journal, digital content manager of ababj.com, and editor of ABA Bank Directors Briefing. He coordinates the popular Pass the Aspirin and First Person features and wrote the booklet series Focus On The Bank Director. He is the only journalist to have sat in on three federal banking exams, was a finalist for the Jesse H. Neal national business journalism awards, and a winner of multiple awards from the American Society of Business Publication Editors.

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