The 18-wheeler arrived at Alexandria's Immanuel Church-on-the-Hill in the dead of night, delivering its precious New Mexican payload into the waiting arms of volunteering parishioners.
Lined up bucket brigade-style, the volunteers emptied the cargo onto the patch of grass in front of the church until the property near Seminary Road and Quaker Lane was warm with the orange glow of October in the form of thousands of pumpkins.
By the time November rolls around, nearly all the pumpkins will be sold. Some will be carved into jack-o'-lanterns. Others will be transformed into soups and breads. Whatever the outcome, each pumpkin will have benefited the church's outreach programs.
That's because unlike their grocery store counterparts, these pumpkins answer to a higher calling.
Grown on a Navajo Indian reservation, the pumpkins were shipped to Immanuel and more than 1,100 other churches and civic and social organizations that conduct sales to fund ministries and support charities nationwide.
This is Immanuel's 11th year operating the Navajo-grown pumpkin sale, which last year grossed the church a record $75,347.
A for-profit North Carolina company, Pumpkin Patch Fundraisers, leases the land from the Navajos and hires them to grow the pumpkins on 2,000 acres of irrigated tribal land. The pumpkins are then trucked to fundraisers such as Immanuel's on a consignment basis. Pumpkins are priced by size rather than weight. Those that are not sold are not paid for.
About $40,000 of Immanuel's sales last year was sent back to Pumpkin Patch Fundraisers, which funds the nationwide operation. Pumpkin Patch officials say they began working with the tribe 13 years ago and pour more than $1 million a year into the Navajo labor market.
The church used last year's net profit of $35,083 to benefit its outreach ministries, most of which are in Northern Virginia and include Alexandria's Carpenter's Shelter, ALIVE! and Christ House, among others.
"The Lord God had it in mind that this would be a pumpkin patch," said Immanuel Rector Stephen Wade, noting that nearly all of the church's parishioners help out during the three-week sale.
Perhaps no one is more involved than Wendy John, 56, Immanuel's self-described "Pumpkin Lady." It is an apt description for a woman who yesterday was clad from earrings to moccasins in pumpkin-inspired regalia. The zesty U.S. Department of Agriculture lawyer has two jobs: representing the interests of the Forest Service -- work she has done for 30 years -- and promoting the sale of Immanuel's pumpkins.
"I tell people, 'You can put your money anywhere,' " said John, whose enthusiasm is almost palpable. "But you might as well do good with it."
Buyers heed her words, arriving by the carload -- couples, babies, dogs and more dogs -- all in search of that perfect pumpkin, the kind whose orange warty skin, tall forehead or robust middle speak to shoppers.
"The experience just makes you feel like a kid again," pumpkin shopper Timothy Redel, 45, of Alexandria explained yesterday, a fine, round pumpkin clutched to his chest. "I suddenly feel like I need to go on a hayride."
He said he'd settle for some candy corn and a Starbucks coffee. Double the buzz; no horse manure.
Set on the gentle slope of a hill, the pumpkin patch is hard for motorists to miss, which is great news for sales and not too great news for the unlucky driver who seven years ago took the curve on Seminary too fast and plowed straight through the gourds.
"It was a disaster for them and a disaster for us," Wade recalled. Undeterred, "we started over."
Today the pumpkin patch is a neighborhood institution.
That's how former Alexandria City Council member David Speck sees it. Speck arrived early yesterday, selecting two pumpkins. Normally he shops with his wife. This time he was solo, requiring "a lot of confidence on my wife's part," he acknowledged.
"You're getting pumpkins with character," said John, examining the pumpkins at Speck's feet.
"It's funny you're saying that," countered Speck, squinting at one of his choices, a slightly lopsided gourd. Cute, but indeed no prizewinner.
"Every pumpkin needs a home," she assured him, laughing.
Immanuel's sale runs through Oct. 31. Until then, the pumpkin patch is open from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily.