A young girl peruses the merchandise Wednesday at Shawn's Pumpkin Patch on Wilshire Boulevard. (photo by Daniel Archuleta)

CITYWIDE — This time of year, when the weather turns gloomy and the gray ocean chases away the summertime crowds, the brightest splash of color comes in orange.

With less than two weeks before the main event — Halloween — pumpkins are popping up throughout Santa Monica, and local business owners, farmers and residents will reap the rewards.

Pumpkins are a cash crop in the United States.

According to research from the Agricultural Marketing Resource Center, pumpkins harvested from 48,500 acres of farm land in 2011 were valued at $116.5 million.

Although California ranks as a top production state, 90 percent of the pumpkins grown in the country are raised within a 90-mile radius of Peoria, Ill., according to the University of Illinois.

Most pumpkins sold by small businesses or farmers in Santa Monica hail from California, some local and others from the northern end of the state.

Shawn Wilk is looking to move 150,000 pounds of pumpkin this year at his lot on the 2300 block of Wilshire Boulevard and another in Culver City. He sources from as close as Camarillo, Calif. and as far as Half Moon Bay, Calif.

It’s the side benefit of the down economy — Wilk used to buy his pumpkins from Oregon, until freight costs soared.

In 1979, the former life insurance broker was looking for a supplemental source of income, and stumbled upon a prime business idea: Holiday sales.

“People don’t buy insurance in December,” Wilk said. “I read an article that there was some money in Christmas trees.”

What began as a 25-foot by 75-foot Christmas tree lot is now a major business for Wilk, who expanded into Halloween pumpkins in the 1990s at the Santa Monica and Culver City locations.

He’s been running the lot on Wilshire Boulevard for the past eight years.

Beyond a festive holiday spirit, pumpkins and evergreens have one major thing going for them — job security.

“My business has gone up every year since 2000. It was down 8 percent in 2008,” Wilk said. “This is a recession-proof business.”

Even when families are cutting back, holiday accoutrements like Christmas trees and pumpkins are an affordable luxury, Wilk said, and he comes armed with a little something extra to tempt families to his lots.

A trip to the pumpkin lot is more like a day at the fair, with lots of activities and distractions for younger children.

“Santa Monica has a bounce house, petting zoo, face painter and a play area,” Wilk said. “Each year, we add more things.”

Santa Monicans also have the option to buy their Jack-o-Lanterns along with the rest of their weekly shopping at the Farmers’ Market on Wednesdays and Saturdays.

It’s a natural extension of the market, said Darra Henigan, the billing, education and volunteer coordinator for the Farmers’ Market.

“Pumpkins are just a variety of winter squash,” Henigan said. “So many grow in California.”

The pumpkins people buy in commercial grocery stores tend to either be inedible or “not the kind you’d like to make a pie out of,” Henigan said, and also more expensive than the varieties found at the Farmer’s Market.

That’s a hard assessment to argue with, particularly with events like the “All You Can Carry” Pumpkin Patch, which will be held next Wednesday, Oct. 26.

All You Can Carry has been a tradition in Santa Monica since 1989 when the current Farmers’ Market director Laura Avery saw a presentation on an Ohio farmer overloaded with pumpkins.

To get rid of the crop, he put up a sign that said “all you can carry” for $2.

“We went with $5 in 1989 and have never raised the price,” Avery wrote in an e-mail.

That fiver buys entry to a patch of pumpkins at Second Street at Arizona Avenue. Participants can take home as many pumpkins as they can carry in their own arms down a 25-foot runway.

“It’s a lot of fun, we enjoy doing it every year,” Avery wrote.

The only way to get a pumpkin cheaper is to go to the decorating event at the Pico Farmer’s Market the following Saturday.

Kids, armed with googly eyes, glitter, yarn and pipe cleaners, get to create a Halloween masterpiece, and without the added mess and hazard of carving.

Decorating, rather than carving, saves all of the edible parts of the pumpkin from a quick demise, said Andrew Basmajian, spokesperson for the Office of Sustainability and the Environment.

Whichever path you choose, a dark day will eventually come for the pumpkin pieces. When that happens, the City Hall-provided green waste bin is a viable option, but, in the spirit of Halloween, burial can always be the final destination.

“Compost is the highest good,” Basmajian said. “If you don’t have a composter, dig a hole and stick it in the ground.”

ashley@www.smdp.com

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