Halloween season is officially here, a time of year awaited by both kids and adults alike. The spooky holiday remains one of the biggest of the year, and not just for the revelers, but also suppliers.
Candy corporations, party stores, even makeup artists bring home a huge bankroll when November 1st rolls around, but what many might overlook is just how much the holiday helps support American farmers.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 41 percent of Americans will carve a fresh pumpkin during the Halloween season. In some states (like California), sales of the gourds can top $31 million in just this time of year alone.
The reason pumpkin carving has become such a popular festivity during Halloween is actually because of Irish immigrants who brought their traditions with them when immigrating to the country around the mid-19th century.
History of the Jack-O’-Lantern
The practice of carving pumpkins starts with an Irish folktale about a character named "Stingy Jack." According to legend, Stingy Jack invited the Devil to have a drink with him, and true to his name, decided he didn’t want to pay the tab. So, he convinced the Devil to turn himself into a coin, which Jack could use to buy their drinks.
Once the Devil did so, Jack decided to keep the money instead, and put it into his pocket next to a silver cross, which prevented the Devil from changing back to his original form. Jack eventually freed the Devil, under the condition that, should Jack die, he would not claim his soul.
When the time eventually came for Jack to pass into the afterlife, God wouldn’t let him into heaven because of his choice to lead a life of sin. The Devil, upset that Jack tricked him, would not allow Jack into hell either. So Jack was sent off into the pitch black night with one burning coal to light the way. As the story goes, Jack put the coal into a carved-out turnip and wandered the Earth with it ever since, haunting those that crossed him.
By the 19th century the Irish began to refer to this ghostly figure as “Jack of the Lantern” before the name was shortened to “Jack-O’-Lantern.” The people of Ireland began to make their own versions of the candle-lit decoration by carving scary faces into turnips and potatoes, and placing them into windows or near doorways to frighten away Jack and other wandering evil spirits.
Not long after, European immigrants started to flee Ireland and migrated to the United States, bringing with them the Jack-O’-Lantern tradition.
When arriving in the U.S., however, they found that native pumpkins were more ideal than turnips since they’re larger in size, have strong walls, and are hollow. This holiday tradition was soon adopted by many Americans and the old Irish story of the “Jack-O’-Lantern” spread throughout the nation, which also gave rise to the popularity of the pumpkin farm.
Pumpkin farmers venture into agritourism
More than just a purchase point, pumpkin farms have become part of an experience known as agritourism (farms that host the community and tourists). Unlike the other grocery stores, wholesale markets, co-ops, farmers markets, and roadside stands where pumpkins are available, at these specialty farms you can take part in a number of festive activities, such as tractor rides, petting zoos, corn mazes, cook-offs, and festive crafts.
According to Jane Eckert, CEO of Eckert AgriMarketing (a firm specializing in providing marketing resources and consultation to farms, wineries, and ranches involved in agritourism), “Depending on the location and the ability to attract customers, farms [can profit] from selling not only pumpkins, but also food concessions and fall decorations, as well as wagon rides, corn mazes and other family activities. ...In fact, many fall season farms are actually charging a general admission just to [enter].”
As such, the Halloween season (generally late September to early November) has turned into big business for many pumpkin farmers that venture into agritourism.
Pumpkin farmers see big revenue
While the average pumpkin sells for about $4 to $8, most families spend at least $20 to $40 for the outing. Multiply that by thousands of guests over the course of the fall season, and returns of $100,000 are not that out of reach in October.
That's because, on average, pumpkin farms produce 40 tons per acre—depending on how favorable weather conditions are and how many pumpkin seeds are planted. So, if a farmer has 15 acres of pumpkins, each of which produces 40 tons per acre, and each pumpkin sells for 12 cents a pound (the average figure according to a 2015 report from the USDA), he or she can make $144,000. Here's the math:
40 tons x 15 acres = 600 tons
Because there are 2,000 pounds in 1 ton, 2,000 pounds x 600 tons = 1,200,000 pounds
1,200,000 pounds x .12 cents per pound = $144,000
That figure comes from just 15 acres of pumpkin-filled land. But imagine larger farms that are 30 acres—that profit is now doubled to $288,000. In all, profit depends on the size of the farm and marketability to the public. But since the goal is to get people on the farm to buy, making it an enjoyable place for the community and families is critical to the business.
Be your own farmer and grow pumpkins at home
If you don't like near a rural area, you can still get the experience by growing your very own little pumpkin patch right in your backyard, and have them ready by Halloween with these handy tips.
Part I: Growing
- Know the right season: Pumpkins require ample water and a long growing season (generally from 75 to 100 frost-free days), therefore they need to be planted by late May in chillier northern locations, and by early July in the more temperate southern states.
- Pick your site: Choose an area with full sun and light shade, and a lot of space for sprawling vines. If your garden space is limited, though, it can still work. Plant pumpkins at the edge of the garden and direct vine growth across the lawn or sidewalk where there’s more room. You can also grow pumpkins in five to ten gallon buckets.
- Tend to the soil: Pumpkins are pretty greedy feeders. They prefer very rich soil that's well-drained and not too soggy. So, you’ll want to mix a good amount of compost and aged manure into the planting site before you sow seeds. Add mulch around your pumpkins to keep in moisture, suppress weeds, and discourage pests, too.
- Get the right temp: Wait until the plant soil is at least 70 degrees Fahrenheit before sowing seeds. In fact, optimum soil temperature is actually 95 degrees Fahrenheit (pumpkins are very sensitive to the cold).
- Plant strategically: You’ll want to place seeds in rows or “pumpkin hills,” spaced at least four to eight feet apart—as well, plant 4 to 5 seeds per hill at least one-inch deep. By using hills, the soil will warm quicker and the seeds will germinate faster—in less than a week with a sprout emerging in five to ten days. This trick also helps with drainage and pest control.
- Plan a watering schedule: Pumpkins are very thirsty plants and need a lot of hydration, so it’s important to water one inch per week. When doing so, try to keep the foliage and fruit dry unless it’s a sunny day. Dampness will make rotting more likely to happen.
- Be patient: If your first flowers aren’t forming fruits, that’s normal. Both male and female blossoms need to open; it will just take some time. This is why it’s important to provide ample growing time before Halloween comes.
Part II: Harvesting
- Tend to the soil (again): You’ll want to repeat the soil cultivation when the plants are about one foot tall, and just before the vines begin to run. At this point, switch over to a fertilizer high in phosphorus just before the blooming period. (Phosphorus is often associated with healthy root development; it's found inside plant cells where it's used to fuel the “metabolic machinery” and ultimately growth.)
- Control the growing cycle: Pinch off the fuzzy ends of each vine after a few pumpkins have formed. This will stop vine growth so that the plant’s energy will be focused on the fruit.
- Turn, turn, turn: As the fruit develops, it should be turned (with great care not to hurt the vine or stem) to encourage an even shape.
- Know that age is important: The key is to harvest pumpkins when they’re mature. Do not pick pumpkins off the vine just because they have reached your desired size. If you want small pumpkins, you can buy small varieties.
- Color code: You’ll know a pumpkin is ripe when its skin turns a deep, solid color (orange for most varieties). Another trick: When you thumb the pumpkin, the rind will feel hard and will sound hollow. Press your nail into the pumpkin’s skin; if it resists puncture, it’s ripe.
- Harvest: To remove your fruit from the vine, cut it carefully with a sharp knife or pair of pruners, but do not tear. Be sure not to cut too close to the pumpkin—a liberal stem (measuring three to four inches) will increase the pumpkin’s shelf life.
Either way you choose to get your pumpkins—at home or on the farm—be sure to keep the seeds after you core them out for décor. The seeds make a nutritious and delicious snack, especially with this recipe.
Photo credit: Paul Delmont