Blue’s the New Orange: Pumpkin Growers Cater to Consumer Interest

10/26/2013 7:00 AM
By Philip Gruber Staff Writer

In most situations, orange is not a plain or regular color. It is bold, loud, out of the ordinary.

When it comes to pumpkins, however, many consumers are no longer satisfied with the standard orange orbs adorning their doorsteps.

They are looking for “something unique that your friends maybe haven’t seen before,” said Andrea Martin, who owns Brecknock Orchard in Mohnton with her husband, Daryl Martin.

Brecknock offers several red and orange varieties like Cinderella and fairytale that are vibrant but in the same palette as orange. More unusual are the slate gray or bluish cucurbits such as Blue Hubbard squash and Jarrahdale pumpkins. Jarrahdale is new this year, Andrea Martin said.

“We have abundant pumpkins at this point,” she said, noting that disease has been a nonissue this year. The store’s pick-your-own operation will end this month, although the Martins will sell picked pumpkins into November.

Brook Lawn Farm Market is well-stocked with all sizes of orange pumpkins, but it also has “any color you can imagine,” said Diana Erb, who runs the Neffsville market with her parents, Jim and Romaine Erb.

Brook Lawn grows almost 100 varieties of pumpkins, squashes and gourds. Pumpkin cultivars come from all over the world. The Erbs scour the seed catalogs every February to see which varieties they want.

The tonda padana and marina di chioggia come from Italy, while Australian butter squash and Queensland blue squash come from Down Under. Queensland has a teal or bluish skin, and can have a bluish flesh that, like most heirloom varieties, is edible.

Knowing what to do with specialty squashes helps customer service and sales. Erb said winter luxury pumpkins are sweet and good for baking. They are also small enough for a family to use for a meal without having a lot of pumpkin left over.

Tennessee sweet potato, a white squash, has a dry flesh, so it is better for nonbaking types of cooking. One customer used it as a filling for gnocchi pasta.

Neck pumpkins, which look like butternut squash, do not have seeds in the neck, a bonus for cooks looking for a lot of pumpkin flesh in one place.

Like Brecknock, Brook Lawn posts informational signs in the market area to help customers understand what they are looking at.

Some varieties are attractive for their colors, others for their shapes.

Queensland blue squash resemble oversized muffins. Peanut pumpkins have a pink skin with tan bumps sticking out. Yugoslavian fingers, which are white gourds, have 10 protrusions reminiscent of human appendages.

Banana pink jumbo squash look somewhat like pale footballs. Green and white snake gourds could be a yard long if they did not grow in serpentine kinks.

The Erbs were concerned in August and September that dry weather would cause the vines to die back early, but drip irrigation and 8 inches of rain from an October storm allayed those fears.

Brook Lawn has kept its prices steady the past few years. The farm store, which offers customers free wagon rides to the pumpkin patch, is wrapping up its season today, Oct. 26.

Ninety percent of the pumpkins sold at Buffalo Valley Produce Auction are ornamental, and 40 percent are novelty types, said Harvey Reiff, the order buyer at the Mifflinburg firm.

“They are sweeping the market dramatically,” Reiff said of the unusual varieties.

If a family wants to buy five pumpkins, they will often pick one or two orange ones and fill out their order with, for example, large and knobby lunch lady gourds or cheese pumpkins, a white type with the size and shape of a cheese wheel.

Demand was higher than supply at the auction this year, which resulted in prices 10 to 20 percent above last year’s, he said.

The market for most novelty pumpkins drops out around Columbus Day, but white pumpkins were holding their value, he said. Prices for boxes of tiny Jack Be Little pumpkins usually crash early in October, but this year they hit record highs of $24 to $27.

“The market was a little bit like trying to stay steady on a surfboard in a rough sea. It was up, down, up, down,” he said.

Disease has been scarce this year. Peanut pumpkins, which are susceptible to diseases, are looking good. Many Jack Be Littles escaped mosaic virus, which can be devastating to the crop.

Farmers had extreme phytophthora problems in 2012, but the auction only had to turn away one grower this year for the problem. That is encouraging because the disease can linger in soil for decades.

Crop rotation is the best defense against phytophthora, but that is not very easy in Pennsylvania’s “very condensed growing area,” Reiff said. Midwestern farmers will often swap land with neighbors and rotate pumpkins with grain to avoid the pathogen.

Pennsylvania produces “some of the finest pumpkins in the country,” he said. “We have a unique quality here.”

Reiff said his growers’ attention to detail helps attract higher-end retailers as buyers. “A lot of our growers hand wash,” he said. “No one wants to see dirt on a pumpkin.”

“Retail demand was amazing with the way the economy is,” he said.

The auction sends pumpkins as far as South Carolina, Long Island, N.Y., and Pittsburgh.

“The advantage with pumpkins is they sell themselves,” said Tim Elkner, a Penn State Extension educator. “You don’t have to try and do something new and unique.”

Nontraditional varieties are a strong segment of the pumpkin market, he said.

While many farmers sell pumpkins through their own retail stands, wholesale buyers and auctions are other major markets for them. Plain Sect growers often grow strictly for auctions, Elkner said.

“A lot of it does move out of state,” especially to New Jersey, where pumpkins do not grow well, he said.

Elkner said he hoped farmers had their pumpkins off the ground by the time the recent large storm dumped inches of rain on the state. Most probably beat the rain, though pick-your-own operations might have been more vulnerable, he said.

“They’re looking really good down our way,” said Dave Longenecker of Oxford Produce Auction. He said the crop is looking much better than it did a few years ago, when pumpkins melted down in the fields.

One Plain Sect farmer who sells at the auction, who asked not to be identified, described his crop as “very good to excellent.” He missed out on some fruit set from the early blossoming because heavy rains washed the pollen off, but the later varieties made up for that setback.

He had a little downy mildew but was able to keep diseases in check with a rotation that included Bravo, Presidio, Quintec, Ranman and Zampro.

The farmer grew mostly Gladiator pumpkins, a traditional jack-o’-lantern variety, and WeeeeeOnes, a 1-pound type from Rupp Seeds.

“The weather was very good for harvesting,” he said.

Another Plain Sect grower who sells through the Oxford auction said the cool August pushed his harvest back slightly because the pumpkins did not ripen as fast as usual.

The wet July did not affect him much because he has good fields, but if he farmed lower-lying fields, “a lot of those plants wouldn’t have survived,” he said.

A neighbor of his had a slight hit to his yield because he did not get into the field fast enough, he said, but that farmer did get large pumpkins.

Like the first farmer, the second credited a strict spraying schedule and a dry September for keeping diseases at bay.

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