Conor and Caitlin McCabe raise pumpkins to pay for college costs

With the summer sun pounding down, few people are ready to think about heading back to school. Even fewer are thinking about Halloween right now.

The McCabe family are the rare exception. The family of four is thinking about both. John and Jean McCabe and their children Conor and Caitlin own and operate a pumpkin patch off Borland Road in the Stafford area that for the past 14 years has produced not only jack o’lanterns for area families but also the money Conor and Caitlin will need to pay for their college educations.

by: PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: VERN UYETAKE - Conor McCabe and his sister Caitlin have grown great things, including this pumpkin plant, from the fertile ground outside their parents front door. Proceeds from pumpkin sales each year go straight into the students college education funds.For Conor, a 2014 graduate of West Linn High School, the harvest is in; he is about to reap the rewards of his family’s efforts. By the time the pumpkin plants are growing in what would otherwise be his family’s front yard are ready to harvest, Conor will be in Ithaca, New York, attending Cornell University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. He plans to major in livestock nutrition in preparation for a career working with animal feed formulation.

“That’s the plan right now,” he said.

Higher education isn’t cheap, particularly at an Ivy League college. But Conor and his family have worked for 14 years to ensure that cost isn’t a barrier when it comes to choosing a college. They have secured his college education one seed at a time.

“The university has been generous with grants to pay for tuition,” Conor said. On top of tuition, he estimates about $15,000 annually for expenses such as food, lodging and books. Money earned through the pumpkin patch, along with with sales of 4-H pigs and Christmas trees, are combining to pay his way. As he heads to Ithaca this fall, he has enough money to pay for at least the first two years in full.

“When choosing a college, I wanted one that was prestigious in the field I wanted to go into, one that would help me get a job right out of college or into graduate school,” he said.

Conor has a record of hard work and success. He graduated among the top 10 in his class while participating in 4-H, playing in the orchestra and serving as an ambassador for the state 4-H program.

It helps that the work of the pumpkin patch occurs mainly in the summer each year. The family typically plants during the second week of June.

“As they’re getting out of school, we’re gearing up here,” Jean said. “July and June, it takes up most of the mornings. Once October comes, it’s good to be able to harvest and sell to customers.”

Caitlin, who will be an eighth-grader at Athey Creek Middle School, put that sentiment a little more bluntly.

“Getting rid of pumpkins feels good,” she said.

In addition to her work in the pumpkin patch, Caitlin also is involved in 4-H. She raises rabbits and finished first in her age group this spring, a performance that earned her the right to compete at the national level this November in Texas.

The family’s agriculture roots run deep. Jean grew up on the property where her family now lives. Her grandfather purchased the property in 1920, and her father, Paul Miken, still lives in the family home adjacent to his daughter’s; his wife Rose passed away this May. Although the first college-fund pumpkin patch was planted 14 years ago, when Conor was just a preschooler and before Caitlin was born, the seed of the idea was planted long ago.

“My parents provided opportunities for us to earn money for college,” Jean said. For her, that meant picking berries from fields on the family farm.

“It was a way for me to have money for college, and it certainly didn’t kill me. What I learned from it was basically how to work,” Jean said.

“A lot of kids at school were complaining about spending 20 minutes in the garden,” Caitlin said. “I say, ‘Man, you should come to my house.’” She estimated that both she and her brother spend a couple of hours every day tending to the patch.

by: PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: VERN UYETAKE - Conor and Caitlin McCabe spend about two hours each day throughout the summer tending to the pumpkins in their familys patch.Their field is about one acre, accommodating about 1,000 pumpkins, and the amount of money the patch brings in each year varies with the crop’s success.

“Some years are good, some are bad,” Caitlin said.

The price — just 25 cents a pound — may be one reason why about half the McCabe’s customers come back year after year.

“I think they come back because they want to contribute,” Jean said. “They want to help kids out.”

“Most of the people who come here are parents who might know us from school,” Caitlin said.

“A lot of them are young couples who might have just graduated from college. They know how much it costs,” Jean said.

The pumpkin patch is a remnant of the Stafford area’s agricultural past. It’s a part of local history that is fading rapidly.

“When you think of West Linn you think of up on the hill, not the agriculture part of it,” Jean said. “It’s changed an incredible lot ... Everybody wants their piece of land; they just want their privacy.”

“It seems like the rural areas keep disappearing. I think in a couple decades this area might not even be rural,” Caitlin said.

“The number of farms keeps depleting, but farms’ output keeps rising,” Conor said. “It takes out the local part of it, but also provides food for the ever-growing world population.”

“You’ve got to feed them all,” Jean said.

With their grandmother gone and their grandfather’s health uncertain, the siblings are not 100 percent sure how long the the pumpkin patch tradition will continue. One big change will affect the workload at this fall’s harvest.

“We’ll have one less body for harvesting, with Conor gone,” Jean said.

by: PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: VERN UYETAKE - Connor McCabe is a 2014 West Linn graduate whose academic efforts secured him a stop in the top 10 of his class. He will study at Cornell University this fall while his sister Caitlin will be an eighth-grader at Athey Creek Middle School.Despite the challenges, she seems determined to keep it going.

“We’ll continue. We all work together,” she said. “It’s understood with the kids that every day they need to do some work.

“When I think of summer, people are like, ‘I can hardly wait for summer.’ To me, summer is incredibly busy,” she said.

To her children, the effort seems worthwhile.

“There’s a lot of kids I know, a lot of kids, who haven’t saved a penny,” Caitlin said. “They’re going to have a hard time.”

“It was our intention to put money away for college,” her mother said. “Along the way, they’ve learned a lot of things.”

Caitlin found out this spring that her hard work on the farm has another benefit: increased strength. She set the seventh-grade shot put record at Athey Creek Middle School. Her effort — 34 feet, 1 inch — shattered the previous record of 30 feet, 10.5 inches that had stood for 28 years, she said.

“I actually beat the eighth-grade record, but they can’t put my name up there,” she added.

By Kate Hoots
Education reporter
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