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Pumpkins: A Small-Scale Agriculture Alternative

October 1994

USDA Department of Agriculture
Cooperative State Research Service
Office for Small-Scale Agriculture

The pumpkin reigns as king of the vegetables. The pumpkin was already a staple in the American diet long before the first Thanksgiving feast at Plymouth Rock, Massachusetts, in 1621. Pumpkins were cultivated by native American tribes long before Europeans ever set foot on American shores. Archaeologists have found pieces of pumpkin stems, seeds, and rind in the ancient ruins of the cliff dwellers in the Southwestern United States. For native Americans, pumpkins were a vital part of an existing multiple cropping system of corn, beans, and squash. Those seeds were usually planted together in the same hill, sometimes accompanied with a fish for fertilizer. The combination of these vegetables was the staple of many of the native diets and still is today in certain areas of Latin America. Pumpkins were eaten roasted, boiled, and stewed by native American tribes. Not only was the pumpkin grown for its food and feed value, but it also served as a living mulch, helped keep maize fields free of weeds, and discouraged raccoons from eating the corn.

Since that first Thanksgiving feast, pumpkins have become a tradition on American Thanksgiving tables, served primarily in the form of pumpkin pie. The native Americans showed the Pilgrims how to dry pumpkin meat and grind it into meal for year-round use. Colonists used this new vegetable, not only for pie, but as feed for animals (roasted seeds) and as a prime ingredient in other foods. For example, stewed pumpkin was mixed with corn meal for bread, and a simple pumpkin pudding was made by slicing off the top of the pumpkin, scooping out the seed and fibers, and filling the cavity with milk. The whole pumpkin was then baked until the milk was absorbed. The pumpkin and its relative, the winter squash, were very easy to store for winter use.

The irony is that today the American pumpkin is not known for its nutritional value, but as a decorative jack-o-lantern synonymous with Halloween. One can only speculate that the first jack-o-lantern was created as a result of efforts to prepare pumpkin pudding.

Washington Irving wrote about the pumpkin in "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," and more recently, Charles Schultz has rekindled American folklore with the Great Pumpkin in "It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown."

The medieval French name "pampion" means sun-baked squash and is derived from the Greek word "pepon," or a large melon. The English modified "pampion" to "pompkin," which was finally changed to "pumpkin" by the American colonists.

The pumpkin's scientific names are Cucurbita maxima, represented by such varieties as "Atlantic Giant," "Big Max," "Mammoth," and "Boston Marrow," and Cucurbita pepo, represented by "Connecticut Field," "Howden's," and similar varieties.

Nutritional Value

The pumpkin is very high in fiber and vitamin A and contains plenty of beta carotene, which has recently received credit for cancer-preventing qualities. Also, high-fiber diets may prevent overeating, a great concern in American diets. One cup of mashed pumpkin contains approximately 50 calories, yet it ranks among the most nutritious of domestic produce. It contains over 2,500 units of vitamin A, considerable quantities of B complex and C vitamins, along with generous amounts of phosphorus, potassium, calcium, and iron. The smaller pie-sized pumpkins, including "Connecticut Field," can be substituted in virtually any recipe calling for winter squash.

Planting Considerations

To grow healthy pumpkins, the soil should be well drained with a pH of 6.0 to 6.5. It is best to get a soil test done first. Check with your local Extension Service office. Otherwise, if commercial fertilizers are used, broadcast 500 to 1,000 pounds of 5-10-10 per acre before planting. This equates to approximately 5 quarts per 100 feet of row, spread out 3 feet wide over the row. Sidedress at 3 and 6 weeks after seeding with 20 to 30 pounds of nitrogen and 60 to 100 pounds of potassium (approximately 1 pint of 13-0-44 per 100 feet of row). Sidedress fertilizer 6 to 8 inches from the plants on both sides of the row. Equivalent nutrients can also be provided from organic materials.

Pumpkins require ample amounts of potassium for good dry-matter production. If misshaped pumpkins develop, check the boron level or add 1 pound of actual boron (5 pounds of Solubor) per acre to your fertility program. Boron deficiency is likely to occur on sandy soils.

According to Robert J. Rouse, Wye Research and Education Center, University of Maryland, Queenstown, pumpkins can be seeded too early if one is not careful. Pumpkins should not be seeded in the mid-Atlantic region in May. They will make it, but will need to be sprayed over a longer period of time. June is more appropriate. During summer, the days to maturity can vary from 90 to 120, depending on the variety of pumpkins planted and the temperature. According to your marketing strategy, 90-day pumpkins can be planted as late as the first week in July and still make a crop by October. However, pumpkins planted late in the season are more subject to disease and do not yield as well as those planted earlier. Mid-June is the normal planting time. Spacing pumpkins depends on varieties and vine size. If you are planting on a hill system-the easiest for organic growers since the compost and animal manure only needs to be worked into the hills - plant three to four seeds per hill and then thin to one plant per hill. For larger acreages, 2 to 3 pounds of seed per acre should be sufficient for achieving 3,000 to 4,000 plants per acre. Higher rates of up to 4 to 5 pounds/acre may be required for bush varieties. Plants should be spaced 3 feet apart and at least 6 feet between rows.

Cover crops can really help, particulariy hairy vetch. Kill the cover crop and then seed or plant in the residue. By killing or mowing the vetch before it forms seeds, which is the end of May in the mid-Atlantic region, in June one can then use no-till seed or, on a small scale, transplant through the mulch by using a bulb planter or spade. Vetch mulch gives a nice carpet and minimizes soil contact on fruit.

Variations to this monocrop planting system are used by some growers. Ed and Kathy Schaefer, who operate Bellevue Berry and Pumpkin Ranch near Omaha, Nebraska, utilize oats or rye as a cover crop in the spring, and then plant 2 pounds of pumpkin seed per acre in the grain with some ornamental corn. Some of their 35 acres of pumpkins are planted through 4-foot-wide plastic mulch with 10-foot-wide strips of rye or oats in-between the plastic. This is done because the same fields have been continuously cropped in pumpkins for the last 10 years. Care needs to be taken not to plant a row of pumpkins in the same location each year. A combination of sorghum and sudangrass is strip-cropped for frost protection, especially in those fields in which pumpkins are cut and left for pick-your-own harvesting in late October.

To reduce disease problems, most research data suggests rotational cropping, if possible, by planting pumpkins once every 3 to 7 years. For those growers who do not have this amount of acreage flexibility, it is important to clean the field thoroughly after harvest and to fall plow as deeply as possible. If this is done, choose land that is not highly erosive and, weather permitting, plant a winter or early spring cover crop to protect the soil and help minimize crop pest build-up problems. Growers must be aware that certain crops can carry over diseases (e.g., peppers are subject to phytophthora and so are pumpkins), so they should not be planted in the rotations. Nor should other cucurbits such as watermelon, cantaloupes, cucumbers, and squash. Pollinating bees are also critical for successful pumpkin production. In vine crops, the recommendations are one to two honey bee colonies per acre.

Popular pumpkin varieties include: Small sizes: "Munchkin," "Jack-Be-Little," "Sugar Pie," "Spookie," and "Oz." Medium sizes: "Spirit Hybrid," "Jack O'Lantem," "Autumn Gold," and "Happy Jack." Large sizes: "Aspen," "Connecticut Field," "Pankow," "Howden," "Jackpot Hybrid," "Wizard," and "Big Autumn." Very large sizes: "Prize Winner," "Atlantic Giant," "Big Moon," and "Big Max."

Marketing Strategy

A marketing strategy is critical for those contemplating growing pumpkins so they can sell what they sow. One needs to assess whether to wholesale pumpkins or direct market them. Farm location, zoning, insurance, labor supply, and willingness to work with the public are just a few of the factors that should be considered. For those who want to market direct to consumers, one can choose from roadside markets, farmer's markets, on-farm markets, U-pick activities, and community-sponsored agricultural farms. In addition, there is a growing practice to couple some of the market activities with entertainment agriculture, which encompasses hayrides, harvest festivals, and group farm tours.

A farm that markets direct to the consumer needs to project a positive and safe farm image (including overall farm neatness); offer a variety of quality pumpkins; and have adequate equipment, signing, advertising, and access roads. Customers will also require restroom facilities and adequate parking.

Bellevue Berry and Pumpkin Ranch customers enjoy free hayrides to the pumpkin fields, western cookouts, a Haunted Barn, and a kids' "How the West Was Fun" play area. Other pumpkin growers throughout the United States have various marketing strategies, including fall festivals, food-fests and other farm-focus themes. Some growers, like Skip Jackson at the Iron Kettle Farm in upstate New York, construct elaborate pumpkin scarecrow exhibits and sell pumpkins next to their farm market. Butler's Orchards, located in the Maryland suburbs near Washington, DC, allows customers to drive their cars to the pumpkin fields and offers a festival environment in the center of the farm with decorated pumpkin figures, apple butter preparation, food provided by local churches, and live entertainment. The most successful retail farm marketers are innovators. Farmers who build entertainment into their pumpkin sales can draw customers to their farm markets. Some farms, like the Berry Farm in Mathews, Virginia, focus almost exclusively on educational farm experiences for school groups. During their visits, students learn about farm animals, how pumpkins grow, and other crops. Doug Carrigan of Carrigan Farms in Mooresville, North Carolina, offers fall school tours focusing on either pumpkins or apples.

Organizations and Newsletters

According to several vegetable and fruit specialists, there are no national organizations or associations focusing specifically on pumpkin growing. Pumpkin work at the University of Maryland, Wye Research and Education Center, is highlighted in "Agent Update" by Robert J. Rouse, WREC, P.O. Box 169, Queenstown, MD 21658. Much of the information on mid-Atlantic pumpkin work is also featured annually in the Proceedings of the Mid-Atlantic Vegetable Workers Conference.

Farmers contemplating growing and marketing their own pumpkins should check with their local Extension Service offices. An annual pumpkin meeting is hosted by Ray Samulis, Burlington County Cooperative Extension Agent, 49 Rancocas Road, Mt. Holly, NJ 08060-1317 (telephone 609-265-5050). Most States have fruit and vegetable grower associations, which may also have important grower information. The North American Farmers' Direct Marketing Association hosts an annual conference. In 1995, it will be held in Knoxville, Tennessee. Audiotapes of presentations are sold, and in past years there have been presentations on pumpkins and entertainment farming. For more information, contact Richard Reese, Audio Productions, 8806 South Lake Stevens Road, Everett, WA 98205 (telephone 1-800-356-2834).

Prepared by Ed and Kathy Schaefer, Bellevue Berry and Pumpkin Ranch, South 48th & Cornhusker Road, Omaha, NE 68133, and George B. Holcomb (Retired), Office of Communications, U.S. Department of Agriculture, for USDA's Office for Small-Scale Agriculture (OSSA); Howard W. "Bud" Kerr Jr., Program Director. OSSA's address: Ag Box 2244, Washington, DC 20250-2244. Telephone: 202-401-1805; Fax:202-401-1804.

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October 1994

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