Frey Farms pumpkin bus

Ted Frey stands inside a former school bus converted to a pumpkin wagon. Frey Farms, which grows pumpkins in eight states, uses a fleet of the vehicles to transport harvested fruit from field to warehouse.

KEENES, Ill. — This time of year, some employees at Frey Farms ride school buses to work.

The vehicles drive the harvest at the southern Illinois-based business, which may be the biggest pumpkin producer in the United States. Years ago, the family-owned company boosted efficiency by converting retired school buses into harvest machines.

The use of buses in place of traditional field equipment has been a perfect fit for Ted Frey.

“A bus is self-propelled. You don’t need a tractor or anything,” said Frey. “Once you leave the field, you can do 45 to 50 miles per hour and get it to the warehouse. In the past, we used tractors and trailers. Tractors could only do 30 miles per hour. This is a little faster, and definitely more economical.”

Frey came up with the idea years ago, though he doesn’t take credit for inventing bus harvesters. Some melon growers in the South also use converted buses in the fields.

“Our first bus was a gas burner,” Frey said. “We did some work to it, and it turned out to be a strong piece of equipment for us. Then we went to diesels.”

Today, the company owns about 50 buses used during harvest season on its numerous farms, spread out across eight states. The vehicles are purchased either at auction or directly from school districts, which limit passenger bus miles before retiring them.

“We buy anywhere from two to 10 of them at a time,” Frey said. “They turn to be very dependable and strong trucks.”

Conversion has become routine. Frey Farms has a crew that specializes at turning the vehicles from carriers of students to haulers of pumpkins. After tearing out the passenger seats, the workers remove the windows, leaving frames over the wheels to provide stability. The side frames are covered with plastic tiling material to smooth out the edges.

The floors are sprayed with a food-grade coating that keeps the payload clean. The buses are washed daily.

Pumpkins are picked by hand by workers in the field, who toss them to other workers in the bus while a driver moves across a field. Depending on the size of fruits, each bus can hold up to 1,500 pumpkins.

After the buses are modified, they are inspected before they go on the road. Vehicles without air brakes can be driven by workers without commercial licenses.

After a bus is filled with fruit, it is driven to the closest warehouse, where it is backed up to a loading dock. The pumpkins are then placed on a conveyor belt to be washed, sorted and packaged.

“They’ve worked well for us,” Frey said of his fleet.

The machines are getting a workout this time of year. Frey Farms produces more than 5 million pumpkins annually. Though some are processed, most are sold fresh. The company is a major supplier to Walmart and Aldi, among other retail chains.

Harvest began in late August for some ornamental varieties. The main portion of the harvest is under way. That means buses will be rolling through the fields for several weeks.

Nat Williams is Southern Illinois field editor, writing for Illinois Farmer Today, Iowa Farmer Today and Missouri Farmer Today.