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Jack is the king of the harvest

Whether for decorative jack-o-lanterns or tasty treats such as pies, pumpkins are front and center

Those bright orange vegetables found sitting on most front porches this time of year are big business in Ontario.

There were 3,757 acres of pumpkins harvested in Ontario alone last year, increasing from 3,622 acres in 2014. This works out to 80,690,000 pounds of pumpkins, representing $11,092,000 of farm value.

Stuart Horst sells plenty o’ pumpkins at Floralane Farm Market at the north end of Elmira. He buys them at the Elmira Produce Auction from Shady Lane Greenhouse in West Montrose where they’re grown.

He estimates he bought 2,500 this season and he expects to sell all of them.

“Most people shop here because of convenience and because they like to come to the farm. We do have quite a bit of repeat customers,” Horst said.

He begins selling them a couple weeks before Thanksgiving. But as soon as Halloween’s over, so are his pumpkin sales.

“I try not to have any left over. I’ll sell a bin or two or five if I have a few left over. I’ll sell them to some people down in the city that have more traffic than I do. But usually there’s not a lot left over,” Horst said.

He says most people are buying them for decorations. He also buys quite a few pie pumpkins for eating.

“Those are for our pumpkin pies and whoopie pies. They’re just a smaller pumpkin. You can use any pumpkin really,” Horst said.

Pie pumpkins are generally smaller and easier to work with if you want to process them. He notes that a pumpkin is as good as its handle. It isn’t worth much if the handle breaks off.

John Snyder from Snyder’s Family Farm knows more than a thing or two about growing a good pumpkin.

One piece of pumpkin knowledge he shares is the scientific name of a pumpkin handle, which is peduncle. They have a train ride on their farm and that’s one of the fun facts they mention.

“We’ve got a bunch of kids running around yelling peduncle,” Snyder says with a chuckle.

The first step in growing good pumpkins is to start with quality seeds. You also need to have fertile land with enough nutrients in the ground because pumpkins are heavy feeders that like their nitrogen.

Snyder’s Family Farm used to be a tobacco farm, so they’re working on sandy land, which is good for growing pumpkins.

Stuart Horst also has lots of these little gourds on his farm. He bought 2,500 pumpkins this year and expects to sell out by Halloween.[Whitney Neilson / The Observer]
Stuart Horst also has lots of these little gourds on his farm. He bought 2,500 pumpkins this year and expects to sell out by Halloween. [Whitney Neilson / The Observer]

“It heats up nice and fast early in the season and stays nice and hot all season. So that’s good because pumpkins like heat, but they also like water,” Snyder said.

Pumpkins require an inch of rain every week. That wasn’t the case here this summer, so Snyder irrigated to keep them watered. Pumpkins are 90 per cent water. Without enough water they don’t grow as large and they don’t get as firm.

So this season had enough heat for the pumpkins, but not enough water. He says it wasn’t their best growing year on record, but it certainly wasn’t their worst.

“We put about 35,000 seeds in the ground. They’re between 95 and 99 per cent germination, so you’re going to get almost 30,000 or 35,000 plants and then a good yield you’re going to get three per plant. On an average year you’re going to get maybe one, one and a half, two. We were down maybe one a plant, so we were sitting at about 30,000,” Snyder explained.

He says good seasons and bad seasons happen to all pumpkin farmers. One year a farmer will have to buy some pumpkins off another farmer and then the next year the selling and buying will be reversed.

And you can get much more than just orange pumpkins nowadays. There’s everything from white to yellow to even pink.

He says the pink one was a fluke from a farmer in the U.S. The farmer saved the seeds to keep growing them. Snyder’s donates 50 cents from every pink pumpkin they sell to the Pink Pumpkin Patch Foundation which supports breast cancer research.

And Snyder keeps busy testing 20 to 25 different varieties each year to see which ones fare the best.

“Every year they come out with better ones that are going to withstand mildew and rot and all that. The pumpkins that you were growing 15 years ago, you don’t grow anymore because they’re junk compared to the new varieties. Your newer varieties have got better handles, they last longer,” Snyder said.

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