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Reaping a Halloween Harvest

FAMILY PUMPKIN PATCH

JOHN ARENA is ready for a breather. As a pumpkin farmer, he marks today as the end of the ``full blast.'' ``October is the busiest and best month of the year,'' he says from under a red and white baseball cap on the grounds of his scenic Concord, Mass., farm.

``We see the pumpkin at the end of the tunnel,'' quips his son Nat.

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Looking out onto a field backdropped by trees of muted color, Arena estimates that his 42 acres will yield about 250 tons of pumpkins - about half what he'd get in a banner year. A wet spring and a late planting in July made for a smaller crop, says Arena, whose family-run business was started by his father in the 1920s.

The mild-mannered Arena escorts a visitor around the pumpkin patch, where nearly 65 tons of pumpkins, plump off the vine, are piled up for customers' choosing. The mounds look like some sort of quarry refuse; haphazard displays of deformed basketballs. Sold by the pound, the varieties include field pumpkins (at about 15 pounds apiece), sugar pumpkins (best for cooking, about 4 pounds), and giant show pumpkins.

These gargantuan hybrids - sometimes called ``squmpkins'' (squash-pumpkin mix) - are used for display in malls and hotels, or entered in contests. Nat Arena just sold a 319-pounder to a local radio station that plans to drop it by helicopter onto some cars as a fund-raising event. (The squmpkins sell for $1 a pound.)

As much as 20 percent of the crop won't be sold. But no pumpkin goes to waste: ``We bulldoze 'em back into the field - it's the best fertilizer,'' says Arena. As a result of last year's pumpkin dump, they've had their best tomato harvest ever. Nat discovered their remarkable fertilizing properties by accident when lettuce flourished over a pumpkin fill one year. Pumpkins, it turns out, store all kinds of plant nutrients - nitrates and potash - and make them more readily available to plants the next year.

At harvest time, pumpkins are cut off vines with shears and picked up one at a time. ``It's all hand work,'' Arena says. ``They are carefully handled to avoid bruises.'' The squmpkins have to be rolled onto a blanket and lifted by several men onto a truck.

Patrons are particular about their pumpkins. ``People pick up 100 pumpkins before they decide on one,'' says Arena, who sees such behavior year after year.

``We like the cooler days,'' he adds, because ``on the nicer days, they mull around for hours.''

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Every Saturday, anyone who guesses the weight of the pumpkin he's buying within a pound gets it free. ``We gave away 81 pumpkins last weekend,'' says Arena.

Shoppers trailing red wagons walk the paths of pumpkin-dom, hoping to spot one that will end their search. Most want a good orange color, a smooth surface, and a decent stem, says Arena. Some want an ugly pumpkin, says Nat - one with a big woodchuck slash or fungus attack.

``You want a tall, skinny one - for tall faces,'' says nine-year-old Nathan Cooprider of Belmont, Mass., here with his mother, brother, and sister.

As for the real big ones, Nathan says, ``They're kind of hard to carry home, and it's very hard to fit one on your porch.''