Planting Seeds - Food & Farming News from CDFA

California farmers grow pumpkins for fun, not profit

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Pity folks carving faces on skinny old zucchini or trying to make watermelons look fearsome this Halloween.

There’s a pumpkin shortage plaguing parts of the country this year, because of drought and storms in the Midwest and Northeastern states.

In California, the nation’s No. 2 pumpkin state, fine weather has made for pumpkins aplenty. Still growers here aren’t trying to make a killing, unless you count the fake blood at the haunted houses some have set up on their farms. With other crops, they’d be looking to export their bounty to cash in on higher prices. But that isn’t — if you’ll pardon the expression — how pumpkins roll.

There are no vast tracts of mechanically harvested fruit or frantic traders swapping pumpkin futures on global commodities exchanges. California pumpkin farms tend to be small, perhaps a few dozen acres at best, and are geared for producing jack-o’-lanterns rather than pie filling. Most Golden State pumpkins don’t travel; the customers do — to roadside stands and pick-your-own patches.

At a time when the national conversation is focused on greed, pumpkins are an exception. They are a different kind of California gold.

“Pumpkins are really different,” said Tom Turini, a farm advisor with the University of California Cooperative Extension in Fresno. “We’re not trying to feed the world pumpkins. It’s more about tradition, family. It’s farmers just having a little fun.”

Near Half Moon Bay, growers have helped the coastal community about 30 miles south of San Francisco lay claim to the title of “World Pumpkin Capital.” That might be a stretch considering that other pumpkin-centric cities, including Morton, Ill.,and Circleville, Ohio, make similar boasts.

What’s clear is that the fruit thrives in the region’s warm days and cool nights. Tourists flock to the area in fall for the annual pumpkin festival and to visit pumpkin patches such as those operated by John Muller.

Muller first started planting pumpkins on the flower and vegetable farm founded by the parents of his wife, Eda. It was a way to bring in a little extra cash so that the family could keep farming year-round. Muller has his own way of pricing. A group of pint-size cousins recently lugged five pumpkins to his checkout table. Muller told the children that they could have the lot for 20 bucks.

“It all depends on how big the diamond earrings are, or how under-served the kids look,” he said. “I don’t really call the pumpkins business. I call it sharing. Our city neighbors are sharing resources to help keep us farming. We’re sharing the sights and sounds of a farm, the season changing, the sky getting Indian-summer blue and the weather getting cuddly.”

California’s pumpkin crop totaled 186 million  pounds last year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The nation’s top producer was Illinois, at 427.4 million pounds, much of which ended up as canned pie filling.

Illinois will easily retain its pumpkin crown this year, despite a dry summer. But a single pumpkin has already made 2011 a banner year for California. A homegrown specimen came in first at the annual Half Moon Bay Pumpkin Weigh-Off on Oct. 10.

That competition, to see who can grow the largest pumpkin, is frequently won by out-of-state contestants. But this year’s winner was Leonardo Ureña, a Napa Valley grower whose pumpkin weighed in at 1,704 pounds, a state record.

Within days, his pumpkin was on a plane heading to the New York Botanical Garden to join the other winners of regional weigh-offs around North America. The overall champion and new world record holder — a 1,818.5-pound behemoth — came from Canada.

Still, Ureña, who immigrated from Jalisco, Mexico 26 years ago, was pleased just to be in such elite company. He recalled how tightly his oldest daughter hugged him after his win at Half Moon Bay.

“She said, ‘Congratulations, Daddy.’ And I’m crying because it got me right inside,” he said.

After all, growing giant pumpkins is time-consuming. From April to October, Ureña spent more time with his pumpkins than with his family. Raising a pumpkin that weighs about as much as a Smart car requires hand-fertilizing blossoms, feeding the plant constantly and praying the fruit doesn’t explode from growing too fast. The Napa County vineyard and farm where Ureña works lent him land. He went straight from his day job growing regular-size vegetables to caring for his towering pumpkins.  Ureña was recently named grower of the year by the Great Pumpkin Commonwealth, an international organization for growers of gian tpumpkins, for raising a trio of specimens whose combined weight topped 5,000 pounds.

Competition is spirited, yet most Great Pumpkin aficionados trade seeds for free among themselves, even though a lone seed from a champion recently sold for $1,600.

“It’s supposed to be a hobby, not about money,”Ureña said. “To sell one of my pumpkin’s seeds would be dishonorable to the pumpkin world.”

Copyright © 2011, Los Angeles Times

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