Gourd News: Fall Fests a Boon to Pumpkin Growers

10/6/2012 7:00 AM
By Paul Post New York Correspondent

In the Northeast, the Great Pumpkin is big business.

Nationwide, the 51,300 acres of pumpkins planted last year had an economic value of nearly $114 million, the National Agricultural Statistics Service says.

However, the tourism impact from pumpkin-related events is even greater, and throughout October there is no shortage of activities to choose from.

"This has been a good year for growing pumpkins," said Sam Lincoln, of Lincoln Farm Produce in Randolph Center, Vt. "We've been very dry, but the pumpkins all have good size and color."

This Sunday, some of the biggest pumpkins in the Green Mountain State are expected in Burlington for the annual Great Pumpkin Regatta, a zany race in which people carve out giant specimens and paddle them like kayaks. The event brings out thousands of spectators from throughout the region for a day of fun, including live music and entertainment.

Competitors, of course, dress up in crazy costumes such as Viking outfits.

Cooperstown, N.Y., hosted a similar event in late September.

In New Hampshire, the city of Keene hosts an annual Pumpkin Festival where the Guinness Book of World Records has been set for the most lighted jack-o'-lanterns.

Daylong activities include a massive parade, arts and crafts, continuous showing of cartoons in an old downtown movie theater, even a pumpkin seed-spitting contest to see who shoots the longest distance.

Keene's traditional New England village green is transformed into a sea of orange as tall scaffoldings are lined with thousands of intricately hand-carved jack-o'-lanterns. The festivities conclude after dark with a huge fireworks show.

Of course, it's a welcome attraction for the area's pumpkin growers, because everyone is invited to bring their own carved pumpkin to the event.

Raising pumpkins is no easy chore, though, especially in this era of unpredictable climate change. Last year, most of the Northeast was ravaged by late-summer tropical storms that flooded out many fields.

This summer, there was unprecedented drought.

"We couldn't afford losses from another wet year, so this year we decided to plant our pumpkins on a hill," said Justin Sievers of Easton, N.Y. "And they dried out. We've only got 40 percent of what we should have."

He's been growing pumpkins to supplement his Washington County farm income for about 13 years. The 2010 crop was one of his best.

"I thought we were starting to get good at this," Sievers said. "The past two years have been pretty rough."

There is a silver lining, though. Because his plants produced fewer total pumpkins, the ones that did grow are bigger than normal.

"Quite a few are beach ball size, 35 to 40 pounds," Sievers said.

Also, Lincoln said this year's dry conditions had another benefit. Plants didn't have as many vines and leaves. Sometimes, dense canopy holds in moisture, which can promote disease. That wasn't the case this summer.

However, he did notice a wider variety of insects, which he attributes to last year's mild, snowless winter. Pumpkins are just one of many crops at his vegetable farm. Pests such as Japanese beetles, tomato hornworms and the Mexican bean leaf beetle were quite a nuisance.

Overall, though, it's been a good season.

The Hudson Valley has a plethora of Halloween-related pumpkin activities, none bigger than the Great Jack O'Lantern Blaze, held at historic Van Cortlandt Manor.

Starting Oct. 6 and running through Nov. 11, huge throngs turn out every weekend to view this unforgettable spectacle, with more than 5,000 artistically carved pumpkins lit up at night. All kinds of different themed displays are set up, from giant spider webs to marine-type arrangements.

The site is close to Sleepy Hollow, the town that Washington Irving used for his famous Halloween tale, "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow." At colonial-era Philipsburg Manor, a real-life headless horseman re-enacts this classic piece of American literature.

Halloween and related fall festivals have become one of the most popular holiday periods for many people, and pumpkin growers are reaping the financial reward.

Following is a sampling of major Northeast events on this year's calendar.

The Giant Pumpkin Regatta & Festival in Burlington, Vt., is held Sunday, Oct. 7. For information, visit: www.lllvt.org/pumpkin.

The Jack O'Lantern Blaze is held weekends starting Oct. 6 through Nov. 11. For information, visit www.hudsonvalley.org/events/blaze/tickets.

The Keene, N.H. Pumpkin Festival is Saturday, Oct. 20. For information, visit http://pumpkinfestival2011.org/.

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