DIXIE UNION, Ga. - E.D. Jordan squinted in quiet scrutiny at the pale orange shapes - round, oval and crook-necked - peeking through the tall grass. He slowly walked the rows of the long, narrow field, eyeing each of the estimated 300 dew-slick pumpkins and pausing every so often to gently nudge one with his foot in a familiar farming ritual.
Mr. Jordan, 84, stooped down to scoop up a pumpkin the size of an overstuffed backpack. Hefting it in his arms with practiced ease, he hesitated for a second before offering a thoughtful prediction.
"This is a good solid pumpkin. It'll make about 10 to 12 pies," Mr. Jordan said. Neighbors say Mr. Jordan, whom they fondly call "Mr. E.D.," knows a thing or two about pumpkins. He's been growing them for about 65 years on his 20-acre vegetable farm in the heart of Dixie Union, a small rural community north of Waycross.
Mr. Jordan and his wife, Grace, like other Georgia growers, began harvesting their pumpkins last week. The statewide harvest is expected to continue through Thanksgiving, state agriculture officials said.
"Pumpkins are the Christmas tree of Halloween. People go out in search of the great, ideal pumpkin. A lot of our pumpkins are sold at roadside stands, farmers markets or packaged along with entertainment such as hay rides,' said Terry Kelley, an extension horticulturist for the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Science.
Georgia has a small piece of the pumpkin-producing pie in America.
"We only have about 300 to 400 acres statewide devoted to pumpkins. But our production has been steady and growing over the past few years," said Mr. Kelley, an expert on vegetables, including pumpkins.
Most of the state's pumpkins are grown in north Georgia, but a few are grown commercially near Albany. Others are raised in small "backyard patches for roadside sale" throughout south Georgia, Mr. Kelley said.
Pumpkins historically haven't fared well in south Georgia because of the hot, humid climate and their vulnerability to moisture-related disease and insect infestation, he said.
"Overall, it won't be our best year for pumpkins statewide, but it won't be a bad year, either. The quality of our pumpkins is good, but the yields will be as good as last year," Mr. Kelley said.
Most of the pumpkins sold in Georgia are brought in from Tennessee, North Carolina or Ohio, he said.
"We import a lot more pumpkins than we grow right now. But we sell pretty much all that we grow. In the next few years, we expect to grow more pumpkins because of new varieties that are more resistant to disease and insects," Mr. Kelley said.
Mr. Jordan grows pie pumpkins. Many other Georgia farmers concentrate on decorative varieties.
"We've got farmers who grow the giant varieties, ranging from 75 to 125 pounds; the miniature ones, about a half-pound each; and then the jack-o'-lanterns, which average about 10 pounds. The pie pumpkins generally run about 3 to 6 pounds each," Mr. Kelley said.
Mr. Jordan comes from a long line of Ware County farmers.
"My family has been farming here for about 130 years," said Mr. Jordan, who also grows peas, okra, peanuts, butterbeans and sugar cane that he makes into syrup on the family farm.
The couple's pumpkin patch provides a steady supply for pies and bread, said Mr. Jordan, who is a retired restaurateur.
"We've been married 50 years. She's got a real good recipe for pumpkin pie. But it's a secret, and I don't even know what all's in it that makes it so good," he said with a grin.
Mr. Jordan's pumpkins range widely in size and shape. They run the gamut from beige softball-size up to yellow or pale-orange behemoths resembling watermelons.
"I got all kinds of different shapes out of the seeds from a regular old round pumpkin. Some look more like gourds and squash than pumpkins. It makes them interesting," he said.
The Jordans sell their pumpkins and other vegetables at the farmers market in Douglas. In addition, some of their pumpkins are going down the road to a neighbor, who plans to sell them for the couple at his pecan orchard.
As he loaded freshly picked pumpkins from the patch into the back of a hay-filled pickup truck for the trip to market, Mr. Jordan was already looking ahead to next year's crop.
"A few years ago, I had a hill that made 130 pumpkins ... They seem to do pretty good out here, so we have a few for pies," he said.