NAPI and non-profits are pumpkin partners

By Alysa Landry
Special to the Times

SEWICKLEY, Pa., Oct. 17, 2013

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(Courtesy photo)

Indian Wells kindergarteners recently traveled to the Snowflake Pumpkin Patch.

The 172-foot steeple on the United Methodist Church is a landmark in this small western Pennsylvania town.

The church is something from a picture postcard; the bell in its tower has chimed almost every hour for the last 130 years.

Yet every October, people in this town of 4,000 residents flock to the church for a different reason -- thousands of plump, orange pumpkins grown on the Navajo Nation.

The church is one of 1,300 locations in 48 states to participate in a profit-sharing fundraiser with Navajo Agricultural Products Industry, also known as NAPI.

For the last decade, the lawn outside Sewickley United Methodist Church has been transformed into a "pumpkin patch."

"People come here to have their pictures taken," said Barry Lewis, former pastor of the church, who was volunteering Saturday at the pumpkin patch. "We have brides and grooms who have their wedding photos taken here, among this sea of orange."

Every year a semi-trailer makes the 1,500-mile journey from NAPI to Sewickley and volunteers form an assembly line to unload the crop, Lewis said.

This year's crop included nearly 2,500 pumpkins of varying sizes.

So many pumpkins arrived that they covered the lawn bordering two sides of the church.

The church sells the pumpkins throughout October, bringing in about $15,000 yearly.

Two-thirds of the profit is returned to the Navajo Nation, where it is used to pay workers and cover costs of operation. The remaining proceeds go to the church for programs or services, Lewis said.

For more than a month, the church lawn is covered in a layer of straw with pumpkins strewn on top. Children climb on the bigger ones, sometimes tumbling over or through them.

Volunteers from the congregation watch over the patch during the day as customers peruse the crop and pick out gourds for their Halloween needs.

Pumpkins are sold by size, and buyers know they are supporting the Navajo Nation.

A big orange sign on the church steps says "Mission project benefiting the Navajo Indians of New Mexico."

"I can tell you that when people learn that the sales are benefiting the Navajo, they are pleased," Lewis said. "We tell them the pumpkins are grown on Navajoland, that it's part of a business that benefits the tribe."

This month marks the 12th time the church has sold pumpkins, Pastor Russell Shuluga said.

Although few people knew where the Navajo Nation was when the church adopted the project, a sense of fellowship has kept the fundraiser going.

"We got into it because of the mission of being supportive of the Navajo Nation," Shuluga said. "We have folks in the congregation who are Native American, and it's nice for them to have this sort of relationship."

The project is part of Pumpkin Patch Fundraisers, which began 31 years ago when Richard and Janice Hamby began growing pumpkins in Georgia and the Carolinas.

When Hurricane Hugo destroyed the crop in 1989, the couple forged an agreement with NAPI and moved some of its operations to the Navajo Nation.

According to its website, the Pumpkin Patch leases 2,000 acres of land from NAPI and employs Navajo workers on the farm.

Last year Pumpkin Patch Fundraisers shipped 5.5 million pumpkins and netted more than $3 million, the website states.

Lewis, who has spent Saturdays in October for the last 10 years selling pumpkins in Sewickley, hopes the colorful fundraiser works as an invitation for people to explore the church or its missions of service.

"I don't know how many people come to church because of the pumpkins," he said. "But I guess that's not the point."

Calls to Richard Hamby at the Pumpkin Patch were not returned this week, which was one of the busiest of the year for pumpkin harvesting.