Growing a staple fruit for the local market
In a state that grows more pumpkins than any other state in the union, you would think that Matt Klein would shy away from growing that crop. However, the big, orange fruit are still a mainstay on a farm that grows a lot of vegetables. In fact, it is one of the anchors of a marketing program that has been successful for decades.
Klein, who operates a family farm in Burlington, Ill., says that each major vegetable he grows is a big attraction during its season, and pumpkins give him a marquee product during the fall season. On a farm that sells its produce at the two stores it owns, sweet corn, peaches, green beans and pumpkins give customers a great reason to keep coming back all summer and into the fall. The pumpkins are the last main attraction.
About 40 years ago, Klein’s father, Randy, started this 200-acre farm, and he is still active there, though semiretired. On flat land 60 miles west of Chicago, in an area rapidly becoming developed, this rich country is now “on the edge of suburbia,” Klein says. The farm takes full advantage of the fact that there are a lot of hungry folks out there who want good produce, and fewer and fewer farms in this area to supply it. The Kleins have two stores on land that Randy bought years ago. One is in Elgin, population about 70,000, and one is just outside Elgin. Each store is about 2,000 square feet in size.
“Years ago, we would have a roadside stand,” Klein says, but these two stores are a step up that gives them a major presence. The whole family steps in to help. His mother, Judy, and wife, Chris, share responsibility for the stores, while brother Dan works with Matt on the farm. There is one other full-time hired man and a dozen seasonal, migrant workers.
The soil in Burlington ranges from silty loam to clay loam to peat, and it allows a range of vegetables to grow. The farm’s main attraction, planted sequentially, is sweet corn, with 96 acres devoted to the crop this year. The first corn is on the shelves by early summer, and that is followed by other seasonal mainstays.
In addition to the major crops, the farm features crops such as broccoli, tomatoes, peas, cucumbers, muskmelon, eggplant, lettuce, zucchini, potatoes and peppers. Judy likes to have a variety of produce at all times. The family reasons that in order to draw customers away from the supermarkets, they must provide a strong lineup of veggies any time the store is open. They also buy fruit from other sources, particularly relying on Southern Illinois peaches when they are in season, though they will also buy California fruit to round out their selection.
About half of the farm’s produce is sold retail through the stores, Klein says, and the other half is sold wholesale. Ironically, the primary wholesale market is the same type of store as the family’s retail enterprise. They sell most of their wholesale vegetables to other retailers who have stores or stands in other towns and cities. The wholesalers get a price break, but they also come to the farm to pick up the produce.
“It’s a good deal for me, because I don’t have to ship it,” Klein says of the wholesale operation. The farm does own two 8-ton, single-axle trucks used to haul produce to their stores, and he will ship a few loads of excess produce to the Chicago terminal market during the summer for other buyers. That works out well, because the trucks can pick up fruit for the stores on the return trip.
Pumpkins, 18 acres of them this year, are the second-biggest acreage on the farm. That fits in with the state’s signature fruit crop. According to University of Illinois statistics, over 90 percent of the nation’s pumpkins are grown in the state: 496 million pounds in 2006. In fact, it is said that 90 percent of the U.S. crop is grown within 90 miles of Peoria, Ill., and most of those are for processing. That’s not the Kleins’ game.
Typically planted in the first week of June (this year it was June 11 due to rainy weather), the Kleins’ pumpkins are grown differently from the standard wide-bed crop. They plant on 40-inch rows, thinning by hand to 3 to 5 feet apart within the rows. A more normal configuration would be on 60-inch rows, but Klein likes to establish a quick canopy for weed control. Also, because of his other crops, his tractors and other equipment are set up for 40-inch spacing.
In addition, the family grows some soybeans and field corn, using a three-year rotation program for each field. After pumpkins he will grow corn one year, then soybeans for the soil benefits, and then pumpkins again. He tries to keep the pumpkins on silty loam soil where possible.
“We try to avoid the heavy clay, because there’s a real hard crust,” Klein says, and that can hinder germination as much as cool weather can. Put a soil crust and cool weather together in the spring and you have a real problem. Once the plants emerge, he will make two cultivating trips through the fields to combat early weeds. Then there is one pass of hand hoeing and thinning. Though expensive, he finds that handwork is the most effective way to kill large weeds. Often the crop isn’t irrigated at all because pumpkins have deep roots and can be more adversely affected by too much water than by drought. However, he maintains solid set sprinklers and a traveling gun for years when long dry periods set in, and that happens occasionally.
The primary concerns for pumpkins in this area are cucumber beetles and soilborne diseases. The beetles come early, so Klein and his father scout assiduously at emergence. Because he doesn’t have the equipment to apply systemic insecticides, he relies on scouting and applications of Sevin. It’s important to kill the first generation, he says, but also to catch subsequent ones. “There’s two or three generations you have to watch out for,” he says.
Fungal diseases generally come late in the season as heavy dews set in on the pumpkin vines. Cucumber beetles have generally become less of a problem by then, but phytophthora, powdery mildew and other diseases can damage leaves and stems so severely that it can set back fruit development. In addition, too much damage to the stem or “handle” of a pumpkin can make it unmarketable.
“It’s pretty easy to spot,” Klein says of these diseases. “We’ll spray on a 14-day schedule. That usually starts in August.”
Harvest is by the tried and true form-a-line-and-toss-them-to-the-truck method. Like his veggie crops, pumpkins are hauled to the family stores fresh every day. He harvests from late September to Halloween, most of the crop going for the jack-o-lantern trade. They are “a big draw” at a time when the sweet corn harvest is pretty much done and all that is left are late crops, such as hard winter squash and potatoes. By keeping up volume, the stores remain viable through October.
In fact, the Kleins’ season runs from April to December, with the first crop of the year coming from the farm greenhouse. Bedding plants—annual flowers and perennial horticulture plants—are a primary product from April through June. Chris, a horticulture graduate, runs the greenhouse operation and flower sales. Some of the bedding plants are also sold through the family stores. The greenhouse is also used to start veggie transplants early in the year, though not for pumpkins, which are all seeded directly.
The stores are open seven days a week during the season. “The only way we can do that is with quality,” Klein says, meaning that their stores have to stock fresh, top-quality vegetables every day in order to compete. They also like to provide a nice variety, which is why they grow at least eight varieties of pumpkins every year. Over the years they have narrowed down their plantings to varieties that have consistent size, a strong stem and disease resistance. Their old standby is Magic Lantern, a 15 to 17-pound pumpkin with uniform characteristics that store customers love.
“It’s a good wholesale seller, too, not just for retail,” Klein says of the midsize variety. He sells about half of his Magic Lanterns retail and half wholesale. He also grows Aladdin and Gladiator for larger pumpkins of about 20 pounds, and Super Herc and Howden Biggie for those who want a 30-pound or larger jack-o-lantern. All of these varieties also go about half and half to retailers and wholesalers.
Klein also grows a pie pumpkin for those who want to use them for fall and Thanksgiving dessert fillings. That would be the Cannonball variety, another mainstay. He sells about two-thirds of those to wholesalers, he says. His other category is the ornamental pumpkin gourd, and for that he prefers the Munchkin variety. It is edible, and a local chef purchases some every year for his dessert recipes.
Klein says that his family concentrates its efforts on the local markets, avoiding getting involved in the larger out-of-state market. That field can be very fickle, and prices can be undermined quickly depending on volume and sales brokers. The Kleins have had success, and profit, doing their thing, and leave that statewide and national playing field for others. Even selling to supermarkets can be dicey, since without a contract they can be beaten down in price at the last minute.
“We also don’t do the entertainment farming, where people come out to the farm,” Klein says, pointing out that there are plenty of farms in Illinois doing the ag tourism kind of thing. His family avoids it because they like their privacy, because they are a bit out of the way for the urban crowd, and because they are busy enough as it is. They don’t even sell retail at the farm, knowing they would have to add help to dedicate somebody to on-farm sales. He doesn’t rule out a move in this direction in the future, but for now, “we kind of like it quiet.”
Besides, Klein says, he and his family enjoy the farming end of the vegetable business. It’s hard enough to make a living, and they don’t want to take the focus off their efforts to raise quality crops and man their stores. He has already seen many farms in the area succumb to poor economics or sell out to developers. Chicago is moving in his direction, and he wants to hold out as long as he can.
Don Dale is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor. He resides in Altadena, Calif.