WEST JEFFERSON-In less than a decade, pumpkins have gone from a simple experiment to one of the Ashe County’s most important cash crops.
Ashe County’s pumpkin harvest has grown from virtually nothing to more than $5 million in annual gross sales, according to local experts.
That’s still dwarfed by the annual impact of Christmas tree sales – worth about $85 million per year – but it’s an important reminder that there might still be plenty of untapped opportunity for local farmers, according to Travis Birdsell, a horticulture specialist with the North Carolina Cooperative Extension.
“It just so happens that this area is pretty productive when it comes to pumpkins,” Birdsell said. “But it’s only been in the last few years that we’ve really understood just how productive it could be.”
The climate’s fine
Birdsell said the large scale introduction of pumpkins by Ashe County can probably be traced back eight years to farmers who were looking for ways to leverage the contacts they had with the same chain stores who bought their Christmas trees each year.
Bottomley Evergreens and Farms in Alleghany County had long churned out thousands of pumpkins in all shapes, sizes and colors for large-scale customers like Wal-Mart, Birdsell said. So Ashe growers started their own experiments in pumpkin planting.
Those early tests were positive, Birdsell said, thanks to the High Country’s climate.
“Our average daily temperature in combination with our rainfall helps us out a lot,” Birdsell said. “It’s something that you can’t recreate, so in that aspect we find ourselves very fortunate.”
Since then, countywide pumpkin production has skyrocketed to some 900 acres annually, according to Birdsell, roughly enough to fill to the brim the same number of semi-truck trailers.
And demand for the colorful gourds is particularly strong this season thanks to soggy weather that has hurt the harvest in other traditional pumpkin strongholds like Ohio and Indiana.
“So sure, because things didn’t go well in another part of the country we may see some benefits,” Birdsell said. “But that’s also because our reputation for quality pumpkins is increasing and we’ve got some awful great marketers here.”
It’s not trees versus pumpkins
Brian Richardson, a member of the Ashe County Board of Commissioners and a long time tree farmer, ramped up his own pumpkin production just two years ago.
He operates a small pumpkin stand on NC-163 in West Jefferson and said he’ll soon open a similar roadside operation in Columbia, SC, in coming weeks.
Richardson said local pumpkin pioneers like Don Smith, owner of The Pumpkin Patch on NC-16 South in Jefferson, and Greg Sexton, of Sexton Farms in Jefferson, convinced him that growing pumpkins could be a smart business plan.
“You don’t have to use prime tree land to grow pumpkins, you can use the bottoms and places that aren’t always the greatest spot for Christmas trees,” Richardson said. “And you’ve harvested all of your pumpkins by the time the tree harvest really gets going, so the seasons don’t really overlap. You don’t have to choose one or the other.”
But Richardson said pumpkins will likely never surpass, or even come close, to local Christmas tree production. He currently farms roughly 80 acres of trees compared to just 10 acres of pumpkins.
It turns out, while pumpkins are a good cash crop fit for Ashe County, they’re still time, labor and resource intensive to produce Richardson said, and the end product has much lower profit margins than trees. He’ll expend some $600 worth of pesticides every few nights throughout the growing season to ward off insects on his relatively small 10-acre patch.
“So because the prices are lower you find yourself in a situation where you’ve got to make that up in volume and that’s hard to do,” Richardson said. “But it’s a market I think you’ll see continue to grow.”
Still more to learn
Birdsell said researchers still have plenty more to learn about the way certain varieties of pumpkins respond to Ashe County’s soil and climate. The local research station continues to gather data on the best varieties of pumpkins to grow locally.
But Birdsell said he also sees a larger opportunity to expand the production of other varieties of gourds and squash.
“Butternut squash, we’re just really getting into, but that might be another really good opportunity for us,” Birdsell said.
Reach Adam Orr at 336-846-3058 or Twitter.com/AdamROrr