Pumpkins take over the North Fork — for better or worse 

During pumpkin season, from the still-warm, mid-September weeks to the cool crisp of Halloween-time, North Forkers’ weekend fates lie in the hands of Mother Nature.

 Many hope for stormy weather — but not out of concern for their gardens or as an excuse to lounge around and watch television. They just want to avoid mind-numbing traffic jams.

“Sometimes they won’t even let me out of my own driveway,” said James Connolly, who lives along Sound Avenue in Mattituck. “Particularly on a Sunday afternoon, around five o’clock, the cars just creep by here at one mile an hour. I’m trying to get out of my driveway and they won’t even let me out. They’re not going anywhere, but they’re just aggressive.”

“It’s brutal,” added his daughter, Lara McNeil. “I hope it rains. I actually went out last weekend.”

North Fork farmers, on the other hand, rely on the sunny September and October weekends. The agriculture industry, which has defined the North Fork for more than a century, draws tens of thousands of visitors from across Long Island throughout the fall.

“Even though it’s only a window of one month for pumpkins, mostly in the month of October, and September for apple picking, those two months combined comprise over 80% of our income for the year,” said Ed Harbes Sr., a longtime area farmer who stepped back from managing Harbes Family Farm in recent years. “That’s why everybody comes to the same place at the same time, just sunny weekends in the fall. We really hope and pray for good weather during those times because it’s not always cooperative, but it is important to the profitability of the farm for the year.”

While pumpkin-flavored you-name-it might have become a popular fall trend in recent years, pumpkin picking has been serious business for at least three decades on the North Fork. Of course, both pumpkin picking and pumpkin spicing date back several generations. McCormick & Company introduced the fall delight commercially in 1934, and North Forkers have photographs of relatives three or four generations before them heaving the orange, multi-colored or sepia-toned gourds. But who can remember a time before Starbucks’ pumpkin spice latte — the chain’s most popular seasonal beverage, which turned 20 this year — rose to a national staple that almost single-handedly generated the massive modern market for pumpkin spice-scented and -flavored everything?

Here on the North Fork, Harbes Family Farm and Harbes Orchard are at the apex of the pumpkin picking phenomenon. The family that has farmed for 13 generations in the United States and originally in western Europe, draws tens of thousands annually to its three locations during apple and pumpkin picking season, the first of which cropped up in Mattituck in the 1960s. Harbes is undoubtedly one of the most popular fall farm destinations in the region, but because of this, it bears the brunt of the exasperation many locals express over the traffic that accompanies the fall fruit’s bloom.

Mr. Harbes said that back in the ’70s, pumpkins were far from traffic-stopping. They were just another ordinary crop some farmers grew. In 1989, the year Harbes began retailing corn and tomatoes in Mattituck, the gourd business really began to blossom.

“We just happened to have a pumpkin field in sight of the farm stand,” he explained. “And even though we had a large wagon with hundreds of pumpkins on it at the farm stand, people would see the pumpkin field and ask if they could pick their own.”

After shrugging off these early requests, Mr. Harbes said he soon understood there was a demand not for just pumpkins, but for an experience.

For Harbes, this gave birth to he U-pick model as a way to move pumpkins. Over the next decade, the experience grew to include hayrides, a corn maze and eats made from fresh produce at the farm. Nowadays, visitors can hop aboard the Apple Express, as Mr. Harbes calls the tractor-pulled train of mini apple cars, get henna art on their hands and purchase artisan goods before or after they pick one or several of the countless pumpkins the farm now grows on more than 50 acres.

“I like to think of it as giving people an opportunity to come and visit and experience the best of God’s country,” Mr. Harbes said. 

Some farmers have avoided or only dabbled in “agritainment,” as some farm experiences are often called, while making the most of the fall season. Al Krupski of Krupski Farms in Peconic said his farm grows three dozen varieties of pumpkins and gourds each year for those who do not seek all the bells and whistles.

“We really looked at it hard a couple decades ago but we stopped at the hayride and the corn maze,” he said. “It becomes a different business at that point.”

On Monday, Stephanie and Bobby Ryan drove nearly an hour from West Islip to give their 18-month-old son, Oliver, a taste of the country at Harbes.

“We wanted to fill his day with something fun,” Ms. Ryan said. “We wanted apples and we wanted pumpkins. On Instagram I see everyone goes to Harbes.”

For many, the experience comes at a cost. Residents along Sound Avenue say the fall festivities disrupt the peace and quiet. Ms. McNeil described living down the road from Harbes as enduring a crowd attending “a festival every weekend.” She believes that it was around the turn of the 21st century when fall traffic started to increase. She said she remembers a time 40 years ago when she’d see a car pass every 15 minutes or so in the fall. Now, she said, making a left turn into her driveway takes nearly as long.

The experience also racks up an additional seasonal cost for Harbes. To try and alleviate traffic tie-ups, the family has paid police departments and a professional parking service to direct traffic into, on and out of its Riverhead and Mattituck locations the past few seasons. 

“The community was concerned that traffic was slowing down more than necessary,” Mr. Harbes said. “We wanted to maximize what we could with both the police and the on-site parking.”

Last year, Mr. Harbes said, the business paid the Riverhead Police Department $16,000 and a parking firm $14,000 to handle the traffic at Harbes Orchards. For similar services at Harbes Family Farm, the business paid the Southold Police Department $5,000 and other parking professionals $15,000.

While these personal and professional costs are high, they are necessary, as the North Fork is defined by its agriculture. During the summer, farm stands draw droves of visitors to the North Fork, and pumpkin picking has made the North Fork an even more popular destination during the fall. Other businesses have long enjoyed this boost as well , such as vineyards, which welcome families after they wrap up their farm activities.

“When they come here they’re ready to relax, sit down after some pumpkin picking with their children,” said Evie Kahn, general manager at Borghese Vineyard. “From our perspective [pumpkin season] is a plus.

“This is my 15th season here and fall is always our busiest season,” she added. “Has it gotten busier over the years? Certainly it has, but our big rush always has been September, October … After Labor Day, the South Fork closes, but then once the fall hits everybody’s thinking of farm country, and even though we’re a vineyard, we’re still a farm.”

While some residents take to social media to lampoon visitors who come from the west — especially those who discover the long-kept secret of using Peconic Bay Boulevard to avoid traffic, or rage at pumpkins and those who sell them for the traffic they sow — there is an understanding among locals that pumpkins are essential to helping North Fork farms and other businesses owners survive through the winter months and thrive year-round. 

“Our biggest [traffic] problem really is Harbes, but they’ve got to have a chance to make money,” Mr. Connolly said. “You can’t stop progress.”