The short, crisp blue-sky days and the long haunting nights mean it is the season for ghoulish, candle-lit grins from jack-o’-lanterns leering at passersby and trick-or-treaters alike. This autumn-favorite decoration requires a significant amount of time, effort and artistry to create, but carving a jack-o’-lantern is just the final step in what has been a long growing season for the pumpkin. That large pumpkin perfectly suited for carving to inspire some autumn terror is only possible with the hard work of farmers.
Cameron Way is the president of the Southern Ohio Growers Cooperative that produces locally grown pumpkins for large retail outlets in Ohio. The cooperative was formed in 2016 in response to growing interest from large retailers.
“I was on the fence at first, but more opportunities opened up and we are now selling to a grocery store chain in Columbus and a distribution center in southern Ohio,” Way said. “Now we have eight growers in Pickaway, Fairfield, Pike, and Adams counties with roughly 40 acres of pumpkins.”
The cooperative offers ample supply to meet the needs of large retailers and also spreads out the weather risk for the often-challenging crop.
“The whole theory behind this is that none of these individual farms grows enough to supply a large wholesale buyer. It is not big acreage on each farm but it all adds up to enough to take care of a couple of wholesale buyers,” Way said. “But the weather risk was not necessarily spread out this year. We were all wet this year and one of our growers got hit with flooding and hail. Mother Nature has been cruel to us this year.”
The wet, cool conditions that dominated much of the 2017 growing season for southern Ohio made for challenges in producing pumpkins.
“We had a really good crop heading into late June then we got 5.5 inches of rain over two days and that caused big problems on our farm. Weather knocked out three other farms almost completely and damaged one other farm and that is half of our growers,” Way said. “This year a lot of our pumpkins are big because of all the rain and cooler growing conditions. Now we have orders for a lot of 40-count pumpkins and we’ll have to use bigger pumpkins to fill those orders and we have trouble fitting them into the bins. Typically you can get 200 pie pumpkins in a bin and we were mounded two feet out of the bins with 200 pumpkins.”
The co-op buys the pumpkins from the grower and then sells them at a set wholesale price.
“The co-op keeps 10% of the sale and the grower gets 90% of the sale. The funds are then used for the stuff we need and if funds are left at the end of the year we can pay out dividends,” Way said. “All the growers now are board members who vote on how we spend money. It is still pretty new and we are still in a growing stage but we definitely have the groundwork laid. There are still things we need to fine tune.”
Cooperative members also assist each other with tips and advice.
“The other benefit of a cooperative is that we can help each other out with improving production,” Way said. “If you get your fertility right and get good seed and keep plants healthy, then you will more than likely have a good crop. You need natural pollinators too.“
Another challenge is to get enough orders to successfully market most of the crop while still having plenty of supply.
“This year the most challenging thing was trying to get timely orders in so we could make sure we had the crop to fill the demand. Mother Nature is always a challenge with that too,” Way said. “If we have 40 acres we try to get orders for 28 or 30 acres worth of pumpkins. I don’t think this year we’ll be able to supply everything we would like to supply. That is partly due to some late orders, but mostly because of Mother Nature.”
For now, the Southern Ohio Growers Cooperative is just for pumpkins, but “Pumpkin” was intentionally left out of the name in case other crops are added in the future. For Way Farms — just on the edge of Waverly in Pike County — pumpkins are among the top income generators, but certainly not the only crop. The farm produces a wide variety of crops including sweet corn, watermelon, green beans, tomatoes, cantaloupe, eggplant, and a wide array of other veggies. The farm got its start when Way and a couple of friends in college decided to start growing three acres of sweet corn on some of his family’s ground in 2003.
The farm’s offerings gradually expanded, as did the acreage, as Way continued through school and got a job off the farm. In 2009 he was laid off from his job at a farm equipment dealership and decided to expand Way Farms LLC. The business has grown to 40 acres of crop production and permanent Way’s Farm Market locations in Waverly and Jackson. Farm products are also sold at the Chillicothe Farmers Market and in Portsmouth farmers markets. The sales season for the farm starts in late April with flowers and wraps up in late December with Christmas tree sales. The earliest crops are started in a greenhouse on the farm and the growing seasons for several crops are extended with high tunnels.
Way Farms grows five acres of pumpkins, which proves to be an annual challenge.
“We do a four- to five-year rotation out of pumpkins. We rotate them pretty much everywhere but they need good drainage,” Way said. “We are working on tiling every thing.”
Pumpkin production starts in the fall with a radish/oat cover crop blend, along with phosphorus and potash applications according to soil tests.
“It can range anywhere from 70 pounds of potassium to 250 pounds depending on the field,” he said. “Then we do a burndown in the spring and no-till plant pumpkins with a six-row corn planter. There are 7.5 feet between the rows so we use the second row and the fifth row of the planter. I plant in blocks 45 feet wide — three passes with the planter — then leave a 15-foot strip for driveways between every block. We plant around late May to have pumpkins ready for harvest starting in early September. We’ll do a pre-emerge herbicide with a residual. We use Strategy, Dual II Magnum, and Sandea. Then they start flowering 40 days or so after planting — right before they start running. Before they start running we’ll sidedress nitrogen with 28% for a total of 35 gallons per acre. Sometimes we split it with the planter.”
Diseases and insects are a significant challenge with pumpkins and extensive preventative measures are taken to minimize the damage.
“Around July 4 we’ll start with fungicide applications every seven days to control powdery and downy mildew and insecticide sometimes for cucumber beetles. Once we get into the fall those beetles can get pretty tough. Stink bugs and aphids can also be a problem this time of year,” Way said. “We keep spraying as long as we have good foliage. We typically quit applications in mid- to late-September. We use a three-point hitch mounted sprayer. We spray about 50 gallons to the acre over the top and it takes a half hour to 45 minutes. I always spray in the late evening around dusk so the flowers are closed — the pollinators are away from the field at that time. I just use one boom and spray in circles.”
Then as autumn sets in, harvest begins and it wraps up in mid-October.
“For pie pumpkins we use a conveyor belt mounted on a hay wagon and we have three or four people picking and one or two on the wagon collecting them and putting them in bins,” he said. “For bigger pumpkins we cut and bin directly on a gooseneck trailer or we cut and load on hay wagons and bin in a different location. A lot of times we can wipe them with a burlap sack and clean them up enough and get them graded and binned right there, but if they are really muddy we have to wash them. We wait until the dew burns off in the morning to get started so you don’t get mud when you wipe them off.”
Cameron’s wife Mandy manages the farm’s daily operations and works with customer service. They have four other full-time employees and many more part-time during the busiest harvest season.
“If we get any bigger, I’ll need one crew for veggies and one crew just for pumpkins,” Way said.
An incredible amount of work, time and effort from farmers goes into getting those pumpkins to the stores every fall, leaving the last important step to Ohio’s many autumn-inspired Jack O’ Lantern artists.
For more, visit way-farms.com.