Are pumpkins for more than just Halloween?

Pumpkins might still be seen as a quintessentially American crop, but the last 30 years have seen their slow, steady rise in the UK arable sector. This rise has led to a now booming industry providing diverse income for farms across the UK.

Are pumpkins for more than just Halloween?

It’s only in very recent history that the pumpkin became the quintessential fruit of Halloween and autumn. Historically it was the less colourful turnip that was carved around All Hallows’ Eve. However, as immigration to the Americas increased in the 1800s, many arriving from England and Ireland wanted to carry on their traditions, and found turnips harder to come by. So instead they turned to the pumpkin, which has since been bred and perfected for carving, and become a symbol of the season in the US.

It’s hard not to notice that over the past 30 years pumpkins have been making a steady rise in prevalence in the UK too. American films and TV have pushed pumpkin carving into the mainstream traditions of most UK homes with children.

Then, over the last few years, the rise in social media has meant the aesthetic properties of the pumpkin patch created a boom in demand. Particularly on apps like Instagram where a well-taken pumpkin patch picture is a seasonal must for many users. Farmers themselves can amass thousands of followers through posting pictures of their pumpkins and open days.

The last few years have also seen a rapid increase in the desire for pumpkins for consumption, as well as decoration. Whilst in the 90s any farmers who were dealing in pumpkins were likely sticking to the specially bred carving varieties, farmers can now expect to grow a wide range of different looking and tasting fruits. Whilst the varieties bred for carving will undoubtably remain most popular for some time, there is now a demand for fruit with a better flavour and texture than could have been expected 20 years ago.

It’s also a fruit which should be expected to rise in demand as pumpkins are a great source of potassium, iron and vitamins A, C and E, making them a popular choice with the ever-growing healthy food market.

They have also historically been popular with vegans and vegetarians, as despite being 90% water, pumpkins have a hearty flesh which makes them a convenient alternative to meat in stews and roasts. Roughly 7.2 million British adults currently follow a meat-free diet, a number which continues to grow as health and environmental issues remain in the news. This could lead to a wider variety of fruits and vegetables being in demand year round.

Practical pumpkin growing

One benefit of pumpkin growing is that they are not too picky over soil type. However, crop quality and quantity is heavily affected by the weather. Pumpkins need plenty of water, but can easily rot in a moist field. Weather changes can also cause lesions and blemishes to the skin, which will make them unappealing to the supermarket sector.

They also require more space than most crops, with vines growing up to 30ft for around four fruits. It is hard to say exactly how many pumpkins are being grown each year, current estimates suggest up to 15 million are harvested each year in the UK.

In order to have a ripe harvest in time for October the pumpkins need to be seeded mid-May. As long as the weather is in your favour, they are then fairly low maintenance before they need to be snipped off in September ready for harvest.

The biggest consideration for a modern pumpkin farmer is the labour-intensive harvest. The heavy fruits, spread across a wide area, require an up take of seasonal workers prepared for hard work. Picking must be done by hand and each fruit needs washing off and checking to prevent rot spreading during storage.

Whilst some farmers have been successful in opening up their own pumpkin patches, most pumpkins will still be sold through supermarkets, where the demand continues to grow for high volumes at the lowest possible cost, eating into farmers profit margins.

There is also an incredibly limited market timeframe, unlike anything to be expected with any other crop. Pumpkin farmers are often in a race against time to sell their entire yield before the 29th October as the market suddenly closes at Halloween, with some UK shops only having a 10-day window in which they accept pumpkin harvest.

Unsold pumpkins can make excellent livestock feed, which makes them fit well in a mixed farming setting. But the intensive labour involved in harvesting the crop can make it a costly mistake to grow more than needed in the Halloween season.

Whilst many farmers are pushing to try and extend the season beyond the supermarkets’ small two-week window, it will be some time before mainstream shops consider stocking the fruit beyond Halloween, and farmers will need to sell directly or to independent grocers outside of this time.

But the farmers who are already making successful businesses out of the fruit are showing that there is still value in the market. Pumpkin growing and opening up the farm to public picking can provide a diversified income stream which does not deviate too far from traditional arable farming – Whilst also not requiring as much investment in infrastructure as popular diversifications, such as camping and energy.

Pumpkin farms already making it work

Across the UK there are plenty of farms that are making the crop work for them, several of which work exclusively for supermarkets, but a growing number of farmers are using the harvest as a public event.

Pumpkin patches can make great family friendly days out, with activities, mazes, food and more all set up to coincide with the autumn event, whilst also having social media friendly aesthetics for the younger crowd. When British farmers began opening pumpkin patches roughly 20 years ago it was a somewhat unusual venture to choose. But it’s now appealing to more and more family farms.

One well-established example is Undley Farm in Suffolk, where for 22 years the farm has been opening up to the public to pick pumpkins and figure out their maize maze alongside other activities. The Poole family are third generation farmers, and show how the crop can bring life to a traditional family farm without too much modification. At Undley, entry to the patch is free, where families can pick as many pumpkins as they like, priced between 50p and £6. They are then able to make additional income through the other attractions. Having consistently grown and improved since they first opened, the patch has become a family tradition for many and they see many of the same families return each year.

In Scotland pumpkins have only been really making their mark on farms over the past 10 years. Anprior Farm, an 800-acre farm in Stirling, is now being run by the fourth generation and began as a traditional family farm running cattle, sheep and arable. It was relatively recently in 2015 that the family decided to try and branch out into something new by diversifying into pumpkin, at the time being the only farm in Scotland to do so.

Their open days are successfully designed to appeal to both families with children of all ages and a younger adult audience, with features ranging from face painting to gin drinking.

The farm has ticketed entrance to its event, with a £6.50 cost to enter and additional costs for large pumpkins.

They now grow over 10,000 pumpkins a year and welcome thousands of visitors to their diversified site. The success of their pumpkin patch has allowed them to branch out into further diversification paths, such as a luxury glamping site.

And it seems there is still room in market for more farms to diversify into the area. In what might seem an unusual shift, The Watercress Company in Dorset opened its own pumpkin patch this year. Having spent 26 years growing watercress exclusively, the farm clearly saw the potential benefits of pumpkin and is hosting its first patch throughout the half term week. As with many other pumpkin farms there’s a strong focus on fun for the whole family with attractions such as alpaca walks. Pumpkins are selling for £5.

The pandemic has shown the popularity of the farm pumpkin patches more than ever, with most farms operating a strict policy of pre-booking tickets and time slots to control the numbers on farm. Most farms with a patch are already nearly sold out of time slots for October.

As families continue to look for outdoor activities and ways to make at-home celebrations feel more special, despite the poor growing conditions experienced, 2021 could turn out to be a fantastic year for pumpkins.

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