October 19, 2012 11:18:03 AM
Jeff Clark - [email protected]
There are probably easier ways to make a living, but farming pumpkins can be a lucrative business -- lucrative if the temperature, weather, insects and other elements beyond man's control decide to cooperate.
"Farming pumpkins is not easy," Dwight Colson, owner of the area's largest pumpkin farm said. "There are lots of things that could go wrong -- the heat, lack of rain, weeds, insects -- a lot of things. One day you can look out and everything looks beautiful and the next day it looks like someone has let the air out of the pumpkins."
According to Dr. David Nagel, Extension Vegetable Specialist at Mississippi State University, Mississippi produces around 500-to-600 acres of pumpkins. There are 22 pumpkin farms listed with the MSU Extension Service. Drought conditions in 2010 contributed to a small yield, but Colson said the 2012 crop has exceeded his expectations.
This year's crop was a little better than last year and a far better that 2010, one of the worst years for pumpkins in recent memory.
"2010 was a really bad year for pumpkins," Colson said. "But we installed a self-irrigation system and things have been better."
Colson said he usually plants his pumpkins around July 4th so they will be mature and ready to pick by mid-September.
"We planted them on July 6 and we started picking them around Sept. 15," Colson said. "We opened up the pumpkin patch to the public on Sept. 22 and we will be open until Nov. 4. We don't keep up with how much we are selling, but we are running about 24 wagons of pumpkins a week."
Nagel said July is actually the end of pumpkin season but the late planting is due to consumer demand.
"The best weather for growing pumpkins in Mississippi is April until July, but no one wants pumpkins in July," Nagel said. "So instead, we plant in early July to harvest in the middle of October. That opens us up to more disease pressure. Our cost of production is always high because pumpkins need more irrigation and protection from diseases than most other crops."
Other area pumpkin farmers also said business has been good this year. Mississippi's pumpkin acreage has not changed much in recent years, and it is mostly scattered across the state in small operations. This year, most pumpkins were doing well until Hurricane Isaac arrived and caused diseases to increase in some fields, especially in south Mississippi."
Nationally, prices are up slightly because of the drought in the Midwest Nagel said. However, in Mississippi, prices are similar to those seen in recent years. Most of the state's growers are targeting agritourism rather than the wholesale markets.
"It's been a good year for us," said Greg Bollinger, owner of Greg's Produce Barn in Oktibbeha County. "We don't farm the pumpkins here, but we have already sold out of the pumpkins we had to sell. There have been some really pretty pumpkins this year."
While pumpkins have done well for Colson, it's only a part of his larger business venture.
"I only plant about 25 acres of pumpkins," Colson said. "I have about 600 acres of row crops that includes cotton, soybeans and wheat. I have only been farming pumpkins for 12 years."