There's no squashing tradition

Pumpkins: Despite a rough, rainy patch, Maryland farmers have plenty of the fall favorites ready for the seasonal picking.

October 15, 2003|By Sandy Alexander | Sandy Alexander,SUN STAFF

The perfect pumpkin is a personal choice.

Standing in the crisp fall air and looking across piles of the bright orange spheres, some people choose a big round one perfect for carving a scary face. Others are drawn to a miniature version ideal for decorating.

But whether the winner is tall and oval or squat and bulging, pumpkin pickers have a bottom line:

"The biggest thing is they want a good stem or a good handle," said Susan Butler, owner of Butler's Orchard in Germantown. "A lot of people select it by the stem."

In all shapes and sizes, pumpkins are a popular commodity in the fall, and Maryland farmers are working to meet demand, despite the challenges posed by wet weather this year.

According to the Maryland Department of Agriculture, Maryland farmers harvested 1.26 million pounds of pumpkins last year from 1,400 acres, a small drop from the previous year. That harvest was valued at $1.89 million.

"Pumpkins are becoming a very large commercial crop for Maryland growers," said Ginger Myers, agricultural marketing specialist with the Howard County Economic Development Authority. And many farmers are selling them directly to customers at roadside stands or with farm activities such as hayrides and corn mazes.

But with the pumpkin's sensitivity to water, fungi and other threats, "there is an art to growing these" plants, Myers said.

"This year was not a good one" for pumpkins, said Fenby Moore, vice president of Larriland Farm in Woodbine, echoing the sentiments of many area farmers. It was "way too wet and too cool."

Central Maryland farmers said some pumpkins did not germinate, some were planted late and didn't have time to develop fully, and some fell victim to powdery mildew and other fungi encouraged by the wet conditions.

"If you want to bring in a crop year after year, you are forced to use a fungicide program," Moore said, noting that pumpkins like hot, dry weather.

At the same time, he said, they need a lot of water in between the warm spells. (Last year's severe drought proved to be too much for many plants that weren't irrigated.)

In some areas, including Delaware and southern New Jersey, the record rainfalls encouraged more serious plant diseases, including phytophthora and fusarium, which wiped out significant portions of the pumpkin crop.

"We've had a lot of losses," said Gordon Johnson, a University of Delaware agricultural extension agent. "There are some operations that have had near-total failure. ... Some had what I would call a fair season."

In Maryland, which avoided such widespread diseases, the summer's rain still discouraged bees, which are needed to pollinate pumpkin blooms.

Despite the difficulties, Butler reports a good crop and Moore said his farm harvested about 75 percent of what was planted. Other Maryland farms managed to get at least a few acres of quality pumpkins. There are no official numbers for this year's crop, but the state agriculture department says that "despite challenges from rainy weather, there is a good pumpkin selection this year."

Pumpkins have a long history in the diet and culture of North America. Indians grew them long before they were part of the first Thanksgiving at Plymouth Rock.

Pumpkins are closely related to winter squash, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and have lots of fiber, vitamin A and beta-carotene.

Pumpkin pie remains a popular fall dessert, Moore said, but "you definitely want a different variety for a cooking pumpkin." The large pumpkins used for carving tend to be too fibrous, while small, squash-like varieties are better for baking. Sometimes, butternut squash makes the best pumpkin pie of all, he said.

But pumpkins are more often a decorative symbol of the season. Helped by their association with the headless horseman in Washington Irving's story "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" and tales of the Great Pumpkin in Charles Schulz's "Peanuts" comic strip, pumpkins are closely associated with Halloween.

In the fall, "decoration and ornaments is the big market." Myers said.

More than 50 types of pumpkins grow in Maryland. Butler finds the smaller Mystic, Pam and Spooky varieties to be "nice and small so little guys can carry them" when school groups visit.

Then there are the larger Howdens and 20-pound Big Macs, she said, and the unusual white, tan and grayish versions of the Cinderella pumpkin.

Regardless, picking out the pumpkin that looks just right remains a ritual of the season.

"It's a big family time. People even get pumpkins for their pets," Butler said.

"It's part of our heritage," said Myers. "It's ingrained in us."

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