By Tim Kalinowski, Staff Writer
It is very rare to find pumpkins grown in a larger scale way in southern Alberta. By tradition, pumpkins and gourds have usually been more a backyard garden specialty crop. However, Molnar’s Taber Corn & Pumpkins have taken it upscale, growing 17 acres of pumpkins and harvesting thousands of gourds per year. It is not an easy business, says James Molnar.
“It’s pretty intense and stressful, with lots of hand labour,” admits James. “It’s pretty frustrating sometimes dealing with Mother Nature. Basically, if you haven’t got a market for them they are worthless. If everyone went out and grew pumpkins, and then they are just a bunch of orange balls that sit there and rot. You can get minimal animal feed out of them, but not much.”
However, for James, there is also a huge upside if you are willing to put in the time, work and effort involved.
“I started to realize I was good at marketing and I was finding all these niche markets for different kinds of pumpkins, and it just interested me,” he explains. “I don’t just grow the normal Jack O’lanterns. I grow a wide variety of pumpkins and gourds. We truck them ourselves and market them ourselves. It’s a higher value crop and unique. And it gives me a sense of enjoyment when I deliver to the stores. When I am unloading in front of a store, people are already coming to see what I’ve got. It’s great to see the smiles on kids’ faces. It’s pretty rewarding.”
Between he, his wife Jennifer and their kids, alongside some hired hands, they manage to get a crop off every fall. But, admits James, you never quite know for sure what problems will arise at any given year with pumpkins, as they are extremely sensitive to weather.
“You have to know your timing and your varieties. They go in anywhere from May 12 to June 1, depending on variety. With one variety I don’t plant until about May 26 to the beginning of June because if I plant it earlier than that the handles will actually turn from green to kind of a beigy colour. They are almost over ripe. Whereas with some of the other varieties, the quicker you can get them in, the better as long as they don’t get frost as they come up.”
Weeding and pest control is also an ongoing effort.
“You do a little bit of spraying for some weed control, and other weeds you can’t control with spray; so lots of hand hoeing goes on. We also have a little mechanical weeder that my wife rides on and weeds pumpkins all day long for probably 8-10 days straight. She actually enjoys that one, so it’s okay,” he says with a laugh.
Harvest brings more intense manual labour.
“That gets done by hand too. They get clipped off their vines with big X clippers, and then picked up and the side that lays on the dirt has to be cleaned off. And then they are put into a box, and once they are in the box they get hauled in on trailers with front end loaders and put into a big building.”
The Molnars have found one other unique way to market their crop and engage their community. They host Taber’s annual Pumpkin Festival on their farm. Jennifer Molnar explains.
“We started growing pumpkins about ten years ago,” she says. “When the pumpkins were ready for harvest, I had never seen anything like that before. I invited my friends to come and see it, and they came out and then more people came out. The next thing you know we had PumpkinFest.”
The event allows locals and neighbours from the surrounding area to come out and spend a fun day on the farm doing various activities with their kids. In the end, those attending can go out and pick their own pumpkin right out of the field.
“I just think the pumpkins have so much characte,” says Jennifer. “There is just something about them that draws you to them. The kids love to go out and look through all the pumpkins to find their perfect pumpkin. They love to play on our dirt hill, our petting zoo, hoola hooping, the hayride and the bouncy house.
“It really is just like a family fun, good, old-fashioned day. Each year we try to add a little something new and different… It’s become a real community event. We try to keep the festival very community oriented and very kid friendly.”
James says it always surprises him what kind of pumpkin each person ends up going home with from the festival.
“People get to choose from thousands,” he says. “It always surprises me how different people are. What I think is the nicest pumpkin, somebody else won’t even look at. And what I think is the worst pumpkin, is what that person will pick up. It could have the ugliest, worst scar on it you can imagine and that’s what they pick up because they have an image in their head of how that scar might fit into what they are carving. Everybody has a different image in their head of what they see in a pumpkin, and each one is unique.”
This year the Taber Pumpkin Festival took place on October 8. For more information on Molnar’s Taber Corn & Pumpkins call 403-223-2388 or visit their website.