Each year, the fall celebration is splashier and the pumpkins are bolder. According to the National Retail Federation, Americans will splurge close to $6 billion this year on costumes, decorations, candy and other Halloween paraphernalia, the average person spending $66. With Halloween lately becoming almost as big a holiday show as Christmas, some pumpkin farmers have become literary philosophers who wax poetic about their trade, while others relate their encyclopedic knowledge of this versatile gourd.
According to Kurt Alstede, founder of Alstede Farms in Chester, New Jersey, “everybody wants what Linus from the Peanuts’ comic strip fantasized — for the Great Pumpkin to appear.”
In his 30 years of farming, Alstede found that after Christmas the fall harvest has become the second strongest “consumer period.” During “the perfect Currier and Ives weather” families flock to his pumpkin patch for assorted harvest-themed activities like hayrides, corn mazes and pick-your-own apples and pumpkins.
Alstede attributes the pumpkin patch allure to the fact that, “there’s an innate desire to experience the agrarian lifestyle.” Only 40 miles west of the Big Apple, his farm is a place for city folks to chill. Alstede’s parting mantra- “buy fresh, buy local, know your farmer and the health benefits of eating fruits and veggies daily.”
Award — winning pedigree pumpkin seeds are traded like precious gems in Anamosa, pumpkin capital of Iowa. Douglas Edel, coordinator of the Anamosa Pumpkinfest and Ryan Norlin Pumpkin Weigh-off aspires to set a new world record in his town. “the number to beat is 1,725 pounds, while the last two years brought in 1,500 and 1,600-pounders,” boasts Edel.
He admires the giant pumpkin growers, a dedicated breed who start with super seeds of former champions, then gingerly nurture them with high quality nutrients like potassium to form thicker skin and bulk-up the weight, mycorrhiza for root fortification, and phosphorus to encourage copious blooming. The constant daily care includes special shade protection, water misters and fans. A wooden palate is inserted beneath the growing gourd in its infancy, the fully grown monster then moved with a forklift when transported. At the weigh-off contest the high school wrestling team lifts the pumpkin off the palate and places the behemoth on the scale. The first place pumpkin is awarded $3,250, with prizes also for the “most aesthetically pleasing” and “ugliest” pumpkins.
Due east of Anamosa is Frazier Nursery in Vinton, Iowa where owner/farmer John Frazier relishes the season when kids have a blast and adults capture childhood memories, which stokes a pumpkin-buying frenzy. Frazier offers everything from fairy-tale-coach-like ‘Cinderella’ to white ornamentals. “Whatever your druthers, find a symmetrical one that will sit well-balanced on your doorstep without toppling.”
Jim Hoffman, quarter-century owner of Sand Flats Orchard in upstate New York, says pumpkin-pickers should look for a firm, ripe one with no soft or brown spots, and a deep, dark-green stem that’s well attached. Once the stem is damaged — goodbye Charlie. So pick up the pumpkin like a basketball, not by its stem. Also, choose the 10- to 100-pounders like the ‘Howdens’ for carving, the small, tender-fleshed, sugar-packed ‘Sugar Pie’ pumpkins for holiday treats, and the mottled ‘Jack B. Littles’ for decorations. “If you’re looking for trendy,” says Hoffman, “check out the Harris Seeds catalogue.”
Trendy pumpkins can also grow in kitschy colors — green, white, tan, red (‘Rouge D’Etant’) and ‘Australian Blue.’ According to farm owner Vickie Murray from the dual-location Murray Family Farm in Bakersfield, Calif., the exotic warty ‘Super Freaks’ are a popular pick. Murray also specializes in, “healthy and holistic practices good for the planet and people.” “Oktoberfest” is her bustling season, selling over 10,000 assorted pumpkins, and offering “pre-carved ones that’ll keep in the fridge for weeks.”
“If you’re experiencing a southern California heat wave, keep the pumpkin in a cool dry place like the garage,” advises Brenda Van Ommering of Oma’s Pumpkin Patch in Lakeside, Calif. Van Ommering also touts the pumpkin as, “decorative, nutritious and tasty.”
“Picking a pumpkin feels like a holiday tradition like picking a Christmas tree,” says Amy Boncardo of Queen’s County Farm Museum in New York. Boncardo rules over New York City’s largest urban sustainable farm — 47 chemical-free acres. The Museum sells 80,000 a season, and “the pumpkins are hearty,” boasts Boncardo. “Those vine-picked the end of September will last over a month.”
Rose Ann Donell married into the six-generation Donnell Century Farm in Jackson, Tenn., where she teaches children the pumpkin cycle, pollination and seed composting. She prides her “garden of three sisters,” corn, beans and pumpkins. Following an Iroquois legend, this trio keeps the soil fertile to sprout for future generations.
Excited about their new pumpkin patch is Melanie Cunningham, farming partner of the sustainable Shakefork Community Farm in Carlotta, Calif. Water-poor California is ideal for Cunningham’s innovative dry-farming methods-fruits are never watered, but fed a diet of summer fog, soil prepped with a dry dust mulch, and fertilized with organic feed. Surprisingly, these organic pumpkins are comparable in price to conventionals.
Let’s hope that this season Illinois’ edible pumpkins fare better than last year’s crop. According to Roz O’Hearn, spokesperson for Nestle, “for the 2009 harvest twice as much historical rain flooded our Morton, Illinois fields, degrading the pumpkins. To avoid a repeat of last year’s shortfall, we planted earlier and more acreage.”
Libby’s canned pumpkin products (owned by Nestle), which captures 85 percent of the edible pumpkin market, will likely be bountiful this Thanksgiving, “but we are always at the mercy of Mother Nature,” says O’Hearn.