Pumpkins Carve A Solid Niche

October 24, 2003
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GRAND RAPIDS — Pumpkin growers are hoping that Halloween will be more of a treat than a trick for them, just like it was last year.

Last year, the state’s pumpkin farmers saw sales revenue rise to $9.6 million, a jump of 51.5 percent from the $6.3 million they earned in 2001. And early indications are that 2003 should be another pretty good year for many of the 580 farms that grow pumpkins in the state, and that projection should hold especially true for local growers.

Amy Irish Brown, a fruit and vegetable integrated crop management agent with the MSU Extension Service, told the Business Journal last week that pumpkin growers in Kent and parts of Ottawa counties have reported that their harvests were solid, despite a few farmers that had some disease problems.

But on either side of a line drawn from Muskegon to Grand Haven and then stretched east across the state, the news from those growers wasn’t as good.

“Some of the areas north and south of us just didn’t get the rain that we got, even in May, June and July, and they got hit a little bit harder with stress and disease problems and insect problems,” said Brown.

“But for Kent and Ottawa, with a few exceptions here and there, the crop is looking better than I thought it was three or four weeks ago,” she added.

Throughout the state the pumpkin harvest has been either a bumper crop or a bummer of a crop. Still, the bottom line is: There should be plenty of jack-o’-lanterns lit on Friday night.

“In some places, it’s the best ever. In some places, it’s been a horrible year for pumpkins, which I suppose is probably typical for us in Michigan. We have so many different areas, climates and growing conditions, that (production) varies across the state,” said Saralee Howard with the state Department of Agriculture.

“But it should be a reasonably good year. I don’t think there will be a lack of pumpkins,” added Dave Kleweno, state statistician with the ag department.

Brown said there are about 30 farms in Kent County that grow pumpkins and all but a handful do so as a key cash crop each year. Some growers will plant a few acres of pumpkins every few years as an additional crop when they think the market will be ripe for the product.

“There might be a half-dozen that are in for a couple of years and then get out. They think they can make money real fast and actually they can,” she said.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture ranks Michigan as one of the top six states for pumpkin production. According to the department’s statistics, Michigan was fifth in acres harvested for pumpkins last year and fourth in total sales. (See related story.)

So what makes for a good four-month pumpkin growing season?

Try a decent amount of rainfall with an equally decent amount of sunshine. Throw in some non-sandy soil, the type that holds water, along with moderately seasonal temperatures, and the odds improve that a grower will have a good harvest. Brown said not enough rain or too much sun can dry out the pumpkin vines weeks before harvest, and too much rain can lead to problems with insects and disease. Too much heat can result in smaller pumpkins.

“Moderate water would probably be a good term. They can tolerate a little bit of dryness more than being too wet. If we have to err on any side, dry is probably better than too wet.”

Brown pointed out that a big reason why growers had such a banner year last year, their best over the past three growing seasons, was the price for Michigan-grown pumpkins was up in 2002.

“There wasn’t much of a crop farther to the south because of dryness or flooding. It depended on where the crop was. So it was that old supply-and-demand thing,” she said. “There is always a demand for pumpkins, but there just wasn’t a supply in some areas.”    

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