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Pumpkin King

Half Moon Bay — the self-proclaimed “Pumpkin Capital of the World” — is a lightweight compared to Manteca.

Unless you’re into 800-pound monster pumpkins that you need a crane to move, Half Moon Bay isn’t where the action is at. It’s Manteca.

Almost 80 percent of California’s commercial pumpkin crop is grown in the fields around Manteca as well as Tracy and Stockton. On any given day during the harvest season 90 semi-truckloads carrying more than 40 different varieties of pumpkins to market throughout California  and the western states roll from three pumpkin and melon brokers in the Manteca-Ripon area — Perry & Sons as well as Van Groningen & Sons in Manteca and  Dan R. Costa in Ripon.

Last year Manteca area farmers grew 59,900 tons of pumpkins with a wholesale value of $24.8 million.

The next largest pumpkin growing area in the state is Hemet in Southern California.

While pumpkins seem to be able to grow anywhere, commercially they can’t match the color and hardness of those harvested from San Joaquin County fields.

That’s because of the perfect combination of soil — clay loam — combined with blistering hot days accompanied by cooling Delta breezes overnight.

“The soil and weather with the hot days and cool night breezes produces the best pumpkins and the sweetest fruit,” noted Art Perry of Perry & Sons that has been in the melon and pumpkin business since 1925.

The sweetest reward for Perry isn’t shipping top of the line melons to market. It’s the truckloads of pumpkins that his family grows and the pumpkins he brokers for other farmers.

“I love growing pumpkins,” Perry said. “It makes people happy. It makes children happy. Watching kids go up and hug a pumpkin is joy to see.”

Perry & Sons pumpkins started on handshake

Perry’s grandfather — Delfino Perry had no idea he was planting the seeds 96 years ago for what would become the West Coast’s largest melon brokering and growing firms.

He was just pursuing his dream of pursuing a better life in America with the aim of keeping family together and faith in God strong.

Today that dream is going strong as three generations work side-by-side year round bringing farmers and retailers together by growing, brokering and distributing a wide repertoire of melons including watermelons and pumpkins.

Delfino left the Azores in 1906 via Ellis Island. He ended up in California in 1906 first landing in San Luis Obispo and then Oakland and eventually making his way to Modesto before settling in Manteca.

He started a small dairy on Jack Tone Road and started growing sweet potatoes, pumpkins, and watermelon. His brother farmed on Brunswick Road where the Perry & Sons main yard is now located just north of Manteca next door to the Delta College farm.

Art started working on the farm at an early age. His father George Sr. kept having to stop and get off and on his tractor while working the field. That is what prompted George Sr. to teach 5-year-old Art how to drive the tractor so he could be more efficient doing his work.

George Perry & Sons’ pumpkin business was born on a handshake with the late Antone Raymus. George Sr. wanted to farm acreage that Raymus owned near the old Summer Home School on Cottage Avenue.  

They came to an agreement that Raymus would get a share of the crop receipts as payment for use of the land. When George Sr. wanted to put it in writing, Raymus refused, noting that a handshake was good enough for him.

“A lot of farmers — even big ones— still do business that way today,” Art said. “You’ve got to always do the right thing.”

It is that philosophy of  “doing the right thing” by customers that has made the name “Perry & Son” synonymous with quality and dependability among clients ranging from chain stores to chain restaurants.

George Perry & Sons has come a long way since George Sr. planted his first four acres of pumpkins in 1958.  Back then, the pumpkins and melons were tossed into the back of a truck and dropped off at markets. Today, family members equipped with smartphones and accessing i-Trade on the Internet grow, sell, and broker enough melons to keep trucks rolling daily to markets up and down the West Coast as well as Canada.

Friendly feud between growers in Half Moon Bay & Manteca

And while Manteca can’t compete with Half Moon Bay for size — the winner of the annual weigh-in in 2017 set a North America record of 2,363 pounds — it leaves Half Moon Bay in the dust for tonnage. Besides, the gigantic pumpkins in Half Moon Bay are rarely grown there.  

Given what comes from the fields around Manteca, you can understand why local growers were a bit miffed back in the 1970s when Half Moon Bay first proclaimed itself the pumpkin capital of the world.

That prompted Manteca farmers to start an informal “pumpkin fair” a few hours at Library Park that consisted of some kids’ games, a belly dancer that first year, bales of hay and a small mountain of pumpkins. They also openly challenged Half Moon Bay’s claim. That led to the “friendly feud” between the two communities being a featured cover story in People magazine.

That original event ultimately made orange the color of money for Manteca non-profits.

Thanks to the Manteca Pumpkin Fair staged by the Sunrise Kiwanis more than $1 million has gone to non-profits from money the service club has generated since taking over the fair 35 years ago. That’s in addition to money estimated at $400,000 that other non-profits have raised at their own booths over the years at the festival that takes place the first weekend in October. 

Manteca Pumpkin Fair

The 36th annual Manteca Pumpkin Fair will be held Oct. 2 and 3 in downtown Manteca. The free admission event is open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. both days. There will be food, vendors, a community stage, a beer booth, and a kids’ zone on both days. On Oct. 2 there will be a tractor show, a pumpkin carving contest at 6 p.m. and a movie at 7 p.m. A car show will be held from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Oct. 3.