Collaborative efforts spur growth

Photos Courtesy of Allen Straw.
Above, Gladiator is a new variety with resistance to powdery mildew and an attractive appearance.
Top Left, HMX 6689 is one of the varieties tested by the Virginia Pumpkin Growers’ Association.
Bottom Left, This Virginia field of Magic Lantern pumpkins is ready for harvest. Extension Agent Allen Straw recommends Magic Lantern for sale in large retail outlets.

It’s often said that farmers are among the most independent people, but sometimes there is strength in collaboration. Good working relationships with other growers, extension agents, scientists and agriculture department officials can lead to new crops, improved techniques and enhanced income. This approach solved a major difficulty for vegetable growers in southwest Virginia.

In the early to mid 1990s, cabbage was a major crop in the area, but prices held at low rates and a rotational crop was needed. A group of professionals combined their talents to locate an additional crop, to educate growers and to market the produce.

Giving birth to the Virginia Pumpkin Growers’ Association

Gary Larrowe, a Carroll County Virginia Cooperative Extension agent; Danny Neel, a state agriculture department marketing specialist; and Kevin Semones, who manages the Southwest Virginia Farmers’ Market, determined that pumpkins would be a viable addition to crops in the cool, hilly region.

“The crop is almost a one-man operation until harvesttime, which is an added plus for our growers [who] are real busy growing and harvesting other crops,” Neel said. Allan Straw, a Cooperative Extension agent who has worked with the growers since 2002, added that rotation has improved cabbage crops as well.

To help ensure the success of the new crop, the group looked for a vehicle through which ongoing education and resources could be delivered. With the birth of the Virginia Pumpkin Growers’ Association, activities such as variety trials, field days and exchange of market leads and seed sources could be planned.

“The farmers were happy because they needed [the new crop and the association],” Straw added.

Today, the association has about 40 members who meet annually to discuss new varieties, growing methods and other innovations.

Growing the southwest Virginia way

The growers in the southwestern region of Virginia now produce about 3,000 acres of pumpkins each year. Straw said that one field in the Hillsville area is producing 5,000 to 7,000 fruits per acre. Although he said it is difficult to determine the crop’s economic impact, he conservatively estimated the value at $10 million. He believes continuing growth is possible, especially since Halloween is now second only to Christmas in terms of residential and commercial decoration.

“Pumpkins can be grown so many places that the market could become saturated,” he added. “But, it seems that when one region does well, another may do poorly. Sales for the Virginia people continue to do well.”

Straw, who helps educate growers, said pumpkins need medium texture soil with moderate fertility. Consistent rainfall totaling 40 to 50 inches throughout the growing season is ideal. With droughts occurring frequently, irrigation is a must; drip systems are preferable to overhead. Pumpkins are planted by hand or with old corn planters in late May for September and October harvest. Straw added that some growers use the vacuum planters, but that they are cost-prohibitive in many cases. A good sprayer is a necessity, as six to eight treatments are required to fight pests and diseases. The limited availability of herbicides has been challenging.

“Some growers are using old strawberry plastic, [which] can have great yields,” Straw said.

The availability of labor and the high cost of the H2A program continue to be obstacles for growers.

Marketing the perfect pumpkin

A decade or so into their pumpkin growing experiences, the southwest Virginia growers continue to evaluate the best marketing methods. Brokers can be costly, while growers may not have the time and resources for selling their own produce. Straw said some growers have established contracts with retail chains.

Regardless of sales vehicle, the diverse varieties of pumpkins and related crops, such as gourds, lend themselves to several market opportunities.

Straw said the “big box” retailers currently prefer 40-count pumpkin boxes; a 12 to 15-pound fruit is ideal, making this a good market for Magic Lantern pumpkins. But, he added that retailers are also indicating a preference for fruit that can be sold around $3 each, and that some have used 50-count bins for the past two seasons. A variety such as Magician with the plus of disease resistance is a good choice.

Higher end stores may wish to distinguish their offerings by marketing larger fruits, such as Aladdin and Gold Medal, which weigh in around 25 pounds. The Virginia growers are finding success with the newer variety, Gladiator, a mid-size fruit. Although the yield isn’t as great as some other types, it is an attractive pumpkin with excellent powdery mildew resistance.

Pie-type pumpkins, such as Hybrid Pan, Mystic Plus and Cannon Ball, are popular giveaways for school farm tours and lend themselves to craft uses.

Miniatures, winter squash and gourds are related decorative crops that are producing up to 10,000 per acre; in trials, the yield reached 40,000.

“We’re always trying to find new things,” Straw said. “Consumers want something different.”

To that end, some growers are adding color with gourds and Hubbard squash. Some winter squash resemble pumpkins and may be white or red.

“A true white pumpkin is Cotton Candy, developed by Rupp Seed Co.,” Straw said.

Regardless of future trends, the relationships forged through the Virginia Pumpkin Growers’ Association will continue to serve its members well.

“The Association has served the growers extremely well [by] letting [them] discuss management issues, share marketing ideas and networking between themselves to obtain seeds, containers and product,” Neel added.

Learn more about the Virginia Pumpkin Growers’ Association online at www.pumpkinva.org.

Jenan Jones Benson is a freelance writer and editor based in Greensboro, N.C. Contact her at jenanbenson@bellsouth.net .

Pumpkin Growers Associations

Connecticut Giant Squash & Pumpkin Growers Association: www.ctpumpkin.com

Illinois Giant Pumpkin Growers’ Association: www.igpga.org

Indiana Pumpkin Growers Association: www.ipga.us

Maine Pumpkin Growers Organization: www.mainepumpkins.com

New Hampshire Giant Pumpkin Growers Association: www.nhgpga.org

New York State Giant Pumpkin Growers’ Association: www.nysgpga.com

Pennsylvania Giant Pumpkin Grower’s Association: www.pgpga.com

South Dakota Giant Pumpkin Growers Association: www.sdgpga.com