The great pumpkin crop
That visual explosion of autumn orange in Northwest Indiana fields and at farm stands throughout the area is proof that pumpkins are making a comeback appearance this season after a lesser showing last year.
While they may not have a bumper crop, local producers say their pumpkins are healthy and available in greater variety.
“We have a good pumpkin crop. . . . Everybody in our area is doing better,” said Ryan Richardson, general manager of County Line Orchard in Hobart.
While he concedes that heavy spring rains always will bring a few problems, County Line’s strategy of planting more disease-resistant pumpkin varieties on its 25 acres has paid off, Richardson said.
Not so, for pumpkin farmers in central Illinois, where downy mildew already has wiped out entire fields.
Picking a pumpkin
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s 2007 Census, Indiana grows 3,231 acres of pumpkins on 450 farms for the fresh market, making it one of the top 10 states in fresh-market pumpkin production.
Purdue Universtiy Extension horticulture specialist Liz Maynard offered the following purchasing tips for consumers looking to take advantage of the state’s fall pumpkin harvest:
• Choose pumpkins that are fully mature, meaning the fruit is completely orange and the rind is tough.
• Make sure the pumpkin is solid and has no soft spots or unhealed wounds in the rind.
• Select a pumpkin with a healthy stem that is firmly attached. The stem should be solid, not shriveled. Check that the stem is attached by inspecting it—not by lifting the pumpkin by the stem.
• For jack-o-lanterns, avoid hard-shell pumpkin varieties because they are much harder to carve.
Many consumers look for pumpkins not to carve, but to eat.
“If the pumpkin will be used for eating, I would recommend selecting a pie pumpkin and, ideally, talking with the producer to find out whether or not it is a variety known to be good for eating,” Maynard said.
To learn of pumpkin patch locations, visit pumpkinpatchesandmore.org.
Jerry Scheeringa, who owns T & J Farms in Crown Point and operates a farm stand there, said his 3 acres of pumpkins fared well because they were planted on sloped terrain that drained well.
“This year, some farms didn’t do as well due to heavy rains and intense heat. Vine crops like to be dry,” he said.
Lou Mikolics, who owns the u-pick Merrillville Farms in Hobart, has planted acres of pumpkins for 30 years, but not this year.
“We had a devastating spring. Too much rain,” he said. While unable to get in to plant this year, he said there will be a 2011 pumpkin crop.
“My grandchildren made me promise,” Mikolics said.
Scheeringa said T & J Farms once planted 18 acres in pumpkins and sold wholesale, but finding ample help for the labor-intensive crop and higher input costs have caused his cutback.
“It takes 1,000 pounds of fertilizer per acre for pumpkins. It takes only 200 pounds of fertilizer for corn,” he said. “Plus, you need a good spraying program. Now, I just want to raise enough for my farm stand. I can make two to three times more for pumpkins if I retail them.”
Those at Coulter’s Produce and Greenhouses in rural Westville have planted 30 acres of pumpkins for 20 years, and this year’s crop is flourishing.
“We do a little wholesale, but we save the best for our customers. We’re customer-oriented,” owner Jean Coulter said.
From the beginning, Coulter’s offered school tours, but it since has expanded to be a destination business with hayrides, fall foods, a corn maze and pony rides.
“That’s our advertisement,” she said.
Richardson agreed. “It’s our insurance,” he said.
County Line Orchard offers weekend Barnyard Jams showcasing local musical talent, a corn maze, the kids’ farm, a bakery, dining and more. Diversifying in that way draws in new customers while meeting customer demands, Richardson said.
The u-pick pumpkin prices seem to be averaging 30 cents a pound across northern Indiana.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that pumpkins are a $100 million annual industry. The USDA does not track pumpkin pricing separately from other squash and melons.