5 things anyone contemplating growing pumpkins needs to know

From managing the pumpkin category for Keelings over the last six years, Chris Stafford has learned that pumpkin growing in Ireland is not for the faint-hearted.

“In 2014, there were seven commercial growers supplying major retailers in Ireland. This year only two of those original growers are still growing the crop, although there have been new entrants.”

Ireland’s climate and economic restraints for growers are the two main hindering factors, he said. “However, with secure sales contracts and an openness to learning correct growing techniques, pumpkin growing can be a viable option for those interested in diversifying into a different crop,” Stafford said.

Below are Stafford’s top tips for anyone interested in getting into the sector.

1. Get a contract before you put a seed in the ground

“In Ireland we are ever the optimists of ‘ah sure, we will just throw in a few acres and see how they go’ attitude. Thankfully I’ve seen a decrease in this mentality of late, although there is still a likelihood of a grower trying this every year or two.

“What happens is that the grower has no market initially and ends up ‘dumping’ product at below cost onto the market and undermining the true cost for other growers invested in this crop. It’s a sure way to lose relationships with growers, money and time. Link up with: a local retailer; garden centre; wholesaler; or provider such as Keelings, before planning.

2. Land and soil – consider whether you have the correct types

“Pumpkins do need moisture to grow, but they need good, fertile and free-draining soils more so. They do not need to be sitting in damp soils as this leads to rot. Sheltered fields are useful as the pumpkin leaves can cause damage to the fruit in wind, but also having good levels is essential.

“Lower levels of nitrogen and good levels of boron are useful in the soil. Heavy rain is not ideal, so growers in the south and east of the country have a big advantage. South-facing fields are a favourite.

“Bear in mind that, genetically, seeds generally originate in South Carolina, US, the same latitude as Spain. Therefore growing in Ireland is a push. Pumpkins generally don’t show any sign of rot until they are ready for picking. Just in time to break your heart after you thought a few weeks before you would have a great crop. Give them the best start with the correct soil and field picks.

“They need all the help they can get. They are not out to get you but it can feel that way if in the wrong location.

3. Plan ahead on storage

“Come the end of September, harvest generally starts. Growers wait for dry spells of up to four to seven days to harvest. If heavy rain is forecast, getting this bulky crop into storage in a dry condition is key. The pumpkin is believed to be a hard durable product. This isn’t true. The skin is a moisture absorber and they are very susceptible to damage when wet.

“Do you have wooden bins to store this crop? Do you have a non-drip condensation-free shed? Wooden bins can be expensive and in short supply if looking to borrow some from a potato farmers at this time of the year. This can be the last worry on a person starting out growing, but not having these facilities can ruin the final leg of the crop if a wet September or October happens.

4. Factor in labour availability and costs

“As a bulky crop which needs to harvested in a short window, labour planning is a critical aspect of this crop. Having access to numbers of good reliable staff for one month’s hard physical work is a major drawback that cannot be overcome by most growers.

“You need to have enough crop to make it worthwhile, but be clear on how many workers you need and where these are going to come from before you put land over to this crop. Have a clear harvest process in place and limit double handling as much as possible. Labour will be your biggest cost, efficiency is the make and break of making money.

5.  Think long-term commitment

“With global warming causing irregular weather patterns, heavy rains at times and less consistent dry spells over the last three years in particular is testing growers. Being aware that there will be good and bad years needs to instilled in the mind set from the start.

“Being financially stable and a willingness to learn each year will contribute to the long-term success of growing this crop. It will not make a grower a millionaire if the above steps are followed. However, it can create a good income when balanced over years.

“There is still a lot to be learned by Irish pumpkin growers. It is not a well-understood crop and we are testing the boundaries of growing – hence why we used turnips for burning candles to start off with,” Stafford noted.

There is room for more Irish growers due to the fact it’s a bulky crop that is costly to transport from the UK, even with the challenge of Brexit and sterling exchange rates. Co-operation between Irish growers is then key and anyone thinking of coming into the fold needs to work with, rather than against, these growers.

“Understand what markets are open and where you can supply Irish product where imports are currently used,” he added.

If you are interested in looking into growing this crop on a large scale, you can reach Stafford on: [email protected]. He promises to respond once Halloween is over and he has recovered.