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Standing gourd; Family farm produces pumpkins, preserves a way of life

By Brandon Evans | Published Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Blue crystal sky ends in a line of stout post oaks running along a fence.

A cloud of dust floats above a gravel road specked with dusty weeds. It leads between rows of pumpkins orange as sunsets, squashed-looking Cinderella heirloom pumpkins hidden among vines crawling over sandy soil, and a wide variety of green and yellow gourds hunkered down between rows like odd-shaped, camouflaged soldiers in the trenches.

Good Gourd

GOOD GOURD – The long nights of farming and picking are almost over as Thomas and Debbie Hammer gather the last of their fall vegetables before winter approaches. Messenger photo by Joe Duty

For the past several weeks, Debbie Hammer and her 21-year-old son Thomas have spent long days that bleed into the night picking thousands of pumpkins and gourds from their family farm north of Chico.

“The heat is the toughest part,” Thomas said. “You plant these later in the year, and it’s hard to keep them alive through the heat of August.”

But their labor has paid off as they’ve sold plenty of pumpkins and gourds at several area markets and at their own Bowie Farmers Market. They bought the Market last April.

“It made sense to us, from a monetary standpoint, to own the store so there is no middle-man,” Debbie said.

Family Farming

FAMILY FARMING – Thomas Hammer, 21, and his mom, Debbie, put the “family” back in farm with their vegetable farm in Chico, which has grown thousands of gourds and pumpkins this fall for the Halloween season. They sell them in their own store, Bowie Farmers Market, and other local stores. Messenger photo by Joe Duty

They’ve had no problem finding buyers for their wide variety of gourds and pumpkins this fall.

“For the most part, most people spend more on decorating for Halloween and Christmas than any other holiday,” Debbie said. “People spend a lot of money decorating with gourds and pumpkins.”

A market research study found Americans bought more than 18,000 tons of pumpkins during Halloween season last year.

Thomas and Debbie, along with Todd, her husband of 23 years, comprise one of the few remaining family farms in Wise County. As agriculture continues to move toward large-scale and industrial operations – a trend that has closed almost all of the dairy farms in the county – the Hammers are securing a way of life that remains central to the American experience.

They grow about 30 acres of fruits and vegetables each year, moving the crops around their 100-plus acres, letting the land lie fallow.

But they are only part-time farmers. Debbie works days at Poco Graphite in Decatur. Todd works as a contractor in the oil field, and Thomas juggles work on the farm with helping run the store in Bowie – all while attending classes at Midwestern State University in Wichita Falls, where he’s a junior majoring in business.

The three of them run every aspect of the farm, where they also grow hay and raise chickens and cattle.

“It can be a challenge at times trying to handle it all,” Thomas said. “But I always make sure college comes first.”

It was his initiative years ago that prompted the growth of their commercial vegetable venture.

“We always grew vegetables, but we’d just share them with friends and family,” Debbie said. “Then when Thomas was about 15 years old he started talking about a vehicle. We told him he was going to pay for it, just like we had to when we were his age.”

But Thomas didn’t want to have to work for anyone else. Instead, he planted vegetables on about 10 acres of land, sold them to grocery stores and markets, and soon had enough money to buy his own truck. His initiative has led to their thriving family farm today – and it has become his heritage.

“As time went by, with hard work, determination, wise choices and blessings from above we have succeeded and have established the perfect farm life for our family,” Debbie said. “The family farm is a great heritage to pass on to our son.”

Evidence of their dedication to an older, simpler way of life is present all around them. Rusted frames of antique tractors and Ford Roadsters rise among amber grasses waving in the autumn air.

When the final crops of the fall are harvested, and the hard, manual work of the farm is a memory until spring, Thomas and his dad work on restoring Model T’s. They are always digging into the past, preserving a simpler way of life, helping feed the world – and adding a little jack-o-lantern lore to front porches across North Texas.

By the numbers:

  • 1.5 billion: pounds of pumpkins grown per year by U.S. farmers
  • 500: average number of seeds per pumpkin
  • 46: percentage of U.S. adults who carve a pumpkin at Halloween
  • 18,000: approximate tons of pumpkins sold in U.S. during Halloween season

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