According to the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (VDACS), the state’s 2011 pumpkin crop looks good. “We were very fortunate this year,” said Matthew J. Lohr, VDACS Commissioner. “States around us and up the eastern seaboard lost a lot of their crops in the late summer storms, and some growers in the northeast lost 50 percent or more of their pumpkins. Virginia’s major pumpkin-growing areas were spared by the hurricane, however. Some of our pumpkins in the Tidewater area took a hard hit, but from the far southwest, over into central Virginia and in the northern part of the state, the crop looks good.” Lohr adds that the state’s pumpkin growers are marketing their pumpkins through their normal channels and are not diverting Virginia pumpkins to the northeast.
Pumpkins are an important fall crop in Virginia and as of late September, the majority of growers are reporting a normal yield for 2011. They say the pumpkins have good color and size. Although the state crop looks good, there are isolated areas where localized pumpkin shortages may occur because of hot dry temperatures that made it difficult for pumpkins to pollinate and grow.
Pumpkins sold wholesale form the backbone of the commercial pumpkin industry, which is centered in southwest Virginia. The state has approximately 3,000 acres total of pumpkins, gourds, squash and other Halloween-related items. With about 1,760 pumpkins per acre for the 10-inch diameter size and up, Virginia produces almost 5.3 million of the larger pumpkins for market each year, plus thousands of pounds more of smaller pumpkins and gourds.
Pumpkins are a growing trend among Virginia farmers as more growers begin to enter the direct sales market and to get involved with festivals. They sell directly to the public on the farm, at farmers’ markets and to restaurants. “This is popular with both farmers and the public,” said Lohr. “Farmers love it because they are selling at retail instead of wholesale and thus, they keep more of their production dollars. Consumers love it because, more and more, they want to buy local, and it doesn’t get much more local than buying directly from the grower.”
Throughout the state, pumpkins are the main feature of many agri-tourism venues and pick-your-own farms. Farmers who grow corn, wheat, soybeans or other major crops often plant a few acres of pumpkins to diversify their operations and generate extra income. At these farms, people may come to pick their own pumpkins, but they go away with much more, the experience of a day on the farm. They can run through the corn maze, drive the pedal cars through the fields, lob small fruit through the pumpkin cannon, pet the animals, roast hot dogs, enjoy a hay ride, shell their own popcorn or ride the Virginia-themed carousel, to name just a few features of pick-your-own pumpkin farms.
Another growing trend is in the variety of pumpkins sold. The 14 to 17-pound jack-o-lantern style pumpkin is still the most popular variety, and it’s a rare door step that doesn’t boast at least one during the months of October and November. But popular new varieties include specialty pumpkins with fanciful names or strange features. The peanut pumpkin, for instance, looks as though someone pressed in-shell peanuts into the pumpkin’s skin. In addition to bright orange, pumpkins also come in white, blue, green, tan and deep orange or with stripes or variegated colors. Lunch Lady and Bunch of Warts are popular warty gourds, and the turban-shaped Turk’s Turban and pale Long Island Cheese pumpkins are popular for stacking by the door or in the yard for a great fall look. Pie pumpkins remain popular for school tours and other groups.
Consumers looking for pick-your-own farms should go to VirginiaGrown.com and search by location – county or zip code. They can also go the website of the Virginia Pumpkin Growers Association. With one click on the pumpkin button on the VDACS’ homepage, they will find farms, festivals, recipes and other pumpkin-related information.
When buying pumpkins, consumers should look for good color, a nice handle on the top (the stem) and no soft spots. For those who don’t carve their pumpkins at Halloween, the pumpkins should last through Thanksgiving as a fall decoration.