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Pumpkins carve niche as cash flow for farmers
By Patti Drapala
MSU Ag Communications
MISSISSIPPI STATE -- Pumpkins do not grab the headlines as a significant crop, but they fill a niche for many Mississippi farmers who need to supplement cash flow.
“It's best to spread your effort out with several different enterprises because your farm is a business, after all,” said pumpkin producer Clay Meeks of Tippah County, who also grows soybeans and strawberries, and raises cattle. “It helps to have money coming in at different times of the year.”
Meeks operates Pumpkin Patch Farms in Blue Mountain and is advertising this venture online at http://www.pumpkinpatchfarms.com to capitalize on the agritourism wave spreading across many Mississippi farms. He has 20 acres of pumpkins this year and may add another 15 acres in 2009 if business conditions are right.
“I had a good crop this year, and I grow just about every size of pumpkin there is,” he said. “You sometimes just have to ease into the pumpkin business to know what you need to do.”
Producers are indicating that the pumpkins coming out of the fields have good shape, size and color. Agents with the Mississippi State University Extension Service concur. Pumpkins have become a good supplemental cash crop for many farms.
“It would be hard to determine the total number of pumpkin acres we have in the state because acreages are small and scattered around in every county,” said Stanley Wise, Union County Extension director. “We have maybe 5 acres in Union County, Tippah County has about 30, and DeSoto may have 15 acres, and that's an estimate in just one area of north Mississippi.”
Weather was not a big problem for most producers, although it did delay planting and slow maturity in some fields. First-time pumpkin producer Stephen Bailey, who primarily grows sweet potatoes as operator of Bailey Family Farms in Vardaman, understands the problems weather can cause.
“Weather is the critical factor in farm production,” Bailey said. “I would rather have to deal with higher input costs than have to deal with problematic weather.”
Pumpkins range in size from 15 pounds to well over 30 pounds. The crop's yield potential, if weather cooperates and growing conditions optimize, is 1,000 pumpkins to the acre. Prices may vary from 8 cents to 10 cents a pound wholesale and from 20 cents to 25 cents retail.
Many producers like Meeks either operate pumpkin patch businesses or plan to install them. The patch business adds yet another option to wholesale, retail and direct-to-consumer marketing.
Marshall County nursery operator Brooks Brownlee decided to diversify for the same reasons producers give when explaining their cash-flow situations. Brownlee is in his second year of growing pumpkins and currently has 7 acres in production.
“There are many things that can work against your effort at growing pumpkins,” Brownlee said. “Pumpkins are susceptible to fungus and insect pressure, and you must have an intensive management plan to be successful.”
Another consideration for pumpkin producers is a source of labor. Pumpkins are a hand-harvested crop. Their marketability goes down if their appearance is damaged.
“If you have one row of pumpkins in your garden and the yield is 20 pumpkins, that's no problem,” Brownlee said. “If you have 10 acres and your yield is 10,000 pumpkins, you'd better have a reliable source of labor.”6