If you buy a pumpkin from a North Carolina grocery, especially a fat, round one from Walmart, chances are excellent that it will come from Bottomley Evergreens & Farms – giant grower of the Blue Ridge mountains.
No pumpkin producer in the state comes close to the family-owned fields that sprawl across Alleghany County, just off the Blue Ridge Parkway near the Virginia line, turning out “magic lanterns” that match the color of fall leaves.
Turn down a dirt road, and after about a mile, you’ll see workers walking down rows of pumpkins a quarter-mile long, sizing them up for color, shape and size, slapping yellow stickers on the good ones. You’ll see them toss the choice fruit to their partners on flatbed trucks, who pack them into octagon-shaped boxes right in the field.
In a year, Bottomley moves about 1.2 million pumpkins, feeding seven Wal-Mart Stores distribution centers in states from Virginia to Georgia. They’ve also supplied Whole Foods, Harris Teeter, Food Lion and Publix, blanketing the Southeast. Their fields span 1,200 acres, most of them in North Carolina, making Bottomley Farms what is thought to be the biggest producer of pumpkins on the East Coast. The company employs up to 1,000 people in a year, many of them seasonal workers, for its massive operation that includes Christmas trees and garlands.
“It started in that little bitty field right there,” said farm manager Kelly Bottomley, recalling the first 2 or 3 acres in the 1990s. “Pretty much just like a little hobby. Something different from growing cabbage.”
The family’s success speaks to the massive industry that has grown up around Halloween. “Almost as big as Christmas,” said Mike Wagoner, assistant sales manager. “It’s unbelievable what people will spend.”
But the company’s rise also brings a less flattering side. As it has grown, Bottomley has drawn a lawsuit over its wage-and-hour practices, settled confidentially in 2009. The suit, brought by the N.C. Justice Center, alleged that migrant worker Genaro Lopez and others like him were paid at a rate less than the federal minimum wage and, in some cases, not at all.
The farm has also accumulated fines totaling more than $10,000 from violations involving hazard communication and field sanitation, according to records with the Occupational Safety & Health Administration.
The U.S. Department of Labor is investigating wage-and-hour issues at Bottomley Farms, spokesman Michael D’Aquino confirmed.
Asked about these problems, Wagoner issued a statement:
“We are a company that has grown very fast and we have had some minor issues with the Labor Department in the past. We strive to treat our workers in a very fair and honest way, maintaining a safe working environment for all our employees. On the rare occasion that we inadvertently violate any state or federal regulations, we work closely with federal and state authorities to ensure that the violations are corrected and that safeguards are put into place to prevent them from recurring.”
Blan Bottomley, president of the company, declined to speak with The News & Observer.
Meanwhile, the pumpkins keep coming.
‘Man, were they busy’
Pumpkins aren’t a big crop in North Carolina.
The state Department of Agriculture estimates about 3,000 acres total, many of them small plots meant for pick-your-own sales.
“I know a guy in the eastern part of the state who is growing 40 acres, and 40 acres is a lot of pumpkins,” said Tommy Fleetwood, a marketing supervisor with the state Department of Agriculture. “An acre of pumpkins yields pretty good, so it doesn’t take a lot to supply a roadside stand.”
Bottomley pumpkins thrive in the cool mountain air where the soil is loamy and sandy. Heavy rainfall hurt much of the state’s crop this year, with some farmers finding their fields so flooded that minnows were swimming in them. Until August, when the weather dried out, Bottomley farmers worried, too.
“We just have to thank the good Lord we had a successful crop,” Wagoner said.
Last week, with the crop mostly harvested and Christmas crop work in full swing, five crews of six men worked one Allegheny County hillside, each filling flatbed trucks at a rate of about one an hour.
Fleetwood said he visited a few years ago, when Bottomley’s acreage was only about 500.
“Man, were they busy,” he said. “When I was talking to (one employee), he had a cellphone in each hand and was talking on a land line, too.”
Large regional grocers boast about their partnership with Bottomley. Both Harris Teeter and Whole Foods have filmed videos on YouTube showing the grower’s rise from a small cabbage farm. “This family-run business is a great partner for Harris Teeter,” the company’s site raves.
Wagoner said the crop succeeds because of a special technique. Pumpkins are planted in May, and they grow over rye grass, which protects them from rot. Bees are imported – “houses and houses of them,” Wagoner said – to pollinate. Fungicides and pesticides are sprayed at night.
But every pumpkin on the farm is harvested by hand.
“A good pumpkin will have a good color and be uniform,” Kelly Bottomley said. “You get a hard green stem. But some people like a solid green pumpkin, not even orange. You’ve got some people who don’t even care about a stem.”
One man walks ahead, placing stickers on the right-size pumpkins, while another drives slowly behind on a John Deere tractor, pulling a flatbed full of boxes. Two men walk on either side of the flatbed, tossing pumpkins to two men on board, who fill the boxes with squash of the same size.
Workers in the field are almost all Latino, some saying they followed the weather north from as far as Texas and Florida. Tejano music plays from the flatbeds as they walk the rows.
On Tuesday, they were making their third pass over the same field, looking for midsize “thirties” to box up.
“As long as it doesn’t go any smaller than a basketball,” said Julio Hernandez, driving the tractor.
Jobs of any sort are hard to find in Allegheny County. Unemployment stood at 8.5 percent in August, higher than the state average.
Two years ago, Blan Bottomley told Bloomberg News: “If it weren’t for the Hispanic people, I couldn’t farm, couldn’t do nothing.” He added that he knew how to say “go cut cabbage” or “go cut pines” in Spanish.
The lawsuit filed by the N.C. Justice Center said Bottomley hired Genaro Lopez in 2007, paying him mostly on a piecework basis that was standard for those in his job. Work for “substantial periods of time” was not recorded as payable hours, the suit said, and workers were not provided with itemized statements of their hours.
He and others were charged money to use tools on the farm, the suit said. It was settled in 2009 before class-action status could be decided, but lawyers who filed it estimated the total number of workers at 300, many of them migrants who do not speak English.
Feeding a major holiday
This year, the National Retail Federation expects 158 million American consumers to participate in Halloween, spending about $75 each. Of those surveyed, 44 percent plan to carve a pumpkin.
Those totals have dropped in the past year, but the federation reports Halloween spending overall has increased 54.7 percent since 2005.
“Still one of the most beloved and anticipated consumer holidays, Halloween will be far from a bust this year,” NRF President and CEO Matthew Shay said in a news release. “After a long summer, the arrival of fall will put millions of Americans in the spirit to partake in traditional and festive activities.”
In North Carolina, many thousands will partake with pumpkins from Bottomley Farms, the empire that began on a few acres behind a trailer.