Pumpkins may not be a common crop for farmers to grow in Southern Alberta, but for those who do it can be a lucrative local market.
Theo Slingerland, co-owner of the Lethbridge Corn Maze and Petting Zoo, has been growing a wide variety of pumpkins and gourds on his farm for the past 10 years.
Slingerland says, from his perspective, growing pumpkins is a great seasonal complement to his other farm tourism businesses, represented by the corn maze and petting zoo.
“Right now, we are growing up to three acres of pumpkins and gourds, and each year we have been growing a little more,” he says.
“We actually only sell from home through our farm store. People come to pick them up here. We don’t deliver. We grow and sell them right here at home on the farm. Sometimes the customers come only for the pumpkins, but they usually come for other things as well like our corn maze and petting zoo.”
Growing pumpkins has unique challenges, Slingerland confirms, and they are extremely weather sensitive. A few extra weeks of heat or or cold can have a big impact on pumpkin quality and colour, he says.
“You can pick them when they are still green and they will still ripen, but if they are not mature enough they will start rotting,” he says.
“So you try to leave them as long as possible in the field. With the white ones, you have to harvest them before they get too ripe otherwise they start to yellow.”
Slingerland grows his pumpkins using mulch to give them some ground cover against the weather, and uses manure from his goats and other animals for fertilizer. Slingerland also keeps bees to help pollinate them.
“We grow as many different types of pumpkins as we can find that are suitable for this area,” he states.
“We grow anywhere from the real mini ones which are fist sized to the really big ones, wheelbarrow-sized or bigger.
“We also grow different kinds like gourds, yellows, whites and the orange, of course. We also have pink ones and others. Whenever we find a different variety, we try to grow it.”
Some of Slingerland’s more unique varieties include the intentionally-warted knuckleheads and extremely tiny acorn squash.
It’s all about offering a good variety for his local customers to choose from, Slingerland confirms. He has three main local markets for the pumpkins, he says: Those wanting Halloween Jack O’Lanterns, those wanting to make pumpkin pie and other treats, and those wishing to use his products for seasonal decoration purposes.
“We have sugar pumpkins that go for people where they want to make pie or something else,” Slingerland explains. “Thanksgiving is actually a bigger market for us too, because people like to decorate with them. So that’s where we sell mostly the gourds and that kind of stuff. And then, of course, the Halloween market is a big one. The rest is pretty much decorations.”
While Slingerland does not sell all the pumpkins his farm produces every year, there really is no loss represented in growing them either way, he says.
“All our leftovers go to our (petting zoo) animals; so we sometimes feed pumpkins all the way through until March or April,” he explains. “Our chickens and goats both love pumpkins.”
While the Lethbridge Corn Maze is closed for the season, anyone wanting pumpkins can still call his farm directly and ask to purchase whatever the Slingerland family has in store.
Pumpkins have been a good crop for his farm, says Slingerland, and he loves to grow and sell them.
“There is a good return on investment, but there is a lot more work as well,” he confirms. “It’s definitely more labour intensive then some of the other things we grow.”