Saturday, October 2, 2004

No frost is on these pumpkin crops

By Anna Guido
Enquirer contributor

This year's crop of pumpkins is phat, and growers are happy.

The pumpkins cropping up around Greater Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky in recent weeks are not necessarily more plentiful than in years past, but they are bright and plump.

Just ask Jon Branstrator, owner of a 180-acre farm in Clarksville, southwest of Wilmington in Clinton County.

"Last year, my yield was outstanding, but quality is better this year," said Branstrator.

This year Branstrator is even growing a variety called "Phat Jack" - a variety of pumpkins with good color, strong stems and a weight of anywhere from 60 to 80 pounds.

A good pumpkin crop is highly dependent on when it rains and how much it rains, said Joe Gillespie, a retired horticulturist and volunteer master gardener for Ohio State University Extension in Clermont County.

"We had good rainfall this year, but it was well distributed over the full length of the growing season," Gillespie said.

The same cannot be said of the rest of Ohio, where some pumpkin growers have had good yields, some average, some none.

An unusual mix of weather - "everything from too dry and too wet to just right in between" is to blame, according to Brad Bergefurd, horticulture educator for Ohio State University South Centers in Piketon.

"In Clinton County, where I live, there hasn't been enough rain," Bergefurd said.

"But some farmers in Akron lost everything because of flooding."

Rotating crops

Branstrator grows his pumpkins on 23 acres and practices crop rotation with strawberries, corn, soybeans and wheat to improve soil fertility and help control insects and diseases.

He planted one acre of the Phat Jack seed, which was developed by a Michigan farmer, according to Branstrator.

"I kind of use it as a bait to sell more pumpkins," he said. "They've got a stem on them like a tree stump - it's amazing."

Branstrator also does soil testing and analysis as part of a three-state study on pumpkin growth.

Last year, his high pumpkin yield saved a lot of Warren County growers whose crops failed because of disease, including Steve Dowd, owner of Lovely's Farm in Springboro. Dowd bought pumpkins from Branstrator to sell at Lovely's, a 20-acre farm on Ohio 73.

"It's a 180-degree turnaround - like night and day," Dowd said of the difference between his pumpkin crops the past two years. "It's not so much the weight and size - it's the quality. Last year's pumpkins had more disease, and this year's are excellent."

Good-quality pumpkins are bold in color, have strong stems and have no lesions or spots from diseases. They also last longer.

Pumpkin growing season begins in late spring and early summer. Last year, growers struggled with too much rain in the spring, which spurred diseases.

The year before, drought conditions put a damper on the crops. Yet regardless of the weather conditions, pumpkins are always prone to late summer diseases, such as powdery mildew, which is common in Ohio and infects pumpkins, ornamental gourds, cucumbers, melon and squash.

'A real good year'

At Hollmeyer Orchards in Hamilton County's Green Township, the rain this year and last year turned out two good pumpkin crops - and cut production costs.

"We have an irrigation system that we used every year for 25 years, until last year," said 82-year-old Ray Hollmeyer, who works the farm part time with his son, Ron. "This is a real good year as far as we're concerned because we had plenty of rain and our pumpkins are extremely large."

Northern Kentucky farmers are seeing similar results in their pumpkin quality, said David Koester, University of Kentucky extension agent for horticulture in Campbell County.

"Pumpkins were a little early this year, and we thought we would have a problem with that, but it hasn't been the case," Koester said.

Campbell County has about 10 acres of pumpkin crops. Koester said the county's biggest grower is Tony Vogel of Vogel Farms in Melbourne.

Vogel grows only pumpkins on his fourth-generation, 100-acre family farm.

A banker, Vogel picked up the family business two years ago. He started small with 50 pumpkin plants and went big this year with 5,000.

Vogel said he and a nephew did all of the work by hand.

Their yield: more than 10,000 good-quality pumpkins, ranging in size from 20 pounds to 75 pounds, and a couple of "odd-looking" hybrids that top 135 pounds.

Vogel attributes the crop success to hard work, good rainfall and plentiful honeybees. He has four hives on site.

"Ninety-eight percent of pumpkins are pollinated by bees, 2 percent by wind," he said. "I have to give the bees credit. They work hard too."

Ohio among nation's top producers

Ohio is among the top six pumpkin producing states in the nation. The other leaders are Illinois, Pennsylvania, Michigan, New York and California.

Together, the number of pumpkins grown in the six states account for nearly 90 percent of the nation's pumpkin production.

In 2002 (the last census year for this data) 5,564 acres of pumpkins were harvested in Ohio. The estimate for 2003's harvest (based on a sample survey) is 4,000 acres.

The retail price of pumpkins per pound, which has stayed about the same for the past six years, is 25 to 35 cents.

The wholesale price of pumpkins per pound is 15 to 20 cents a pound.

Pumpkins grown in Ohio generate roughly $25 million a year in local sales and exports to southern states.

Sources: James Ramey, director of the Ohio Agricultural Statistics Service near Columbus; and Mac Riedel, Ohio State University vegetable specialist



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