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Pumpkins good profit opportunity

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — Craig Andersen says Arkansas row crop farmers might be missing an opportunity to add profit to their operations by overlooking a fall favorite — pumpkins.

While row crop producers farm millions of acres of cotton, rice and soybeans in the state, pumpkin farmers probably have a total of only about 1,000 acres under cultivation, says the horticulturist for the University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service.

Although there are a few growers with a few hundred acres, "most of them raise from 2 to 40 acres," Andersen said.

Andersen said farmers can double-crop pumpkins behind wheat.

"It's the type crop you can plant late in late June after wheat harvest, and you've got another growing season on a piece of land without a lot of input or labor. It's a nice way to make a little more money on a piece of land."

Andersen said Arkansas is a net importer of pumpkins, meaning that it doesn't produce enough to support the market. Pumpkins sold in the state come from New Mexico, Texas, Illinois and southern states.

This was a good year to be a pumpkin grower in Arkansas, according to Andersen. Several states had weather problems that hurt their yields, while weather was generally more favorable for Arkansas growers toward the end of the season. Yields and prices were generally good.

"There's still good opportunities for growers in Arkansas to market pumpkins locally through pick-your-own, roadside stands, pumpkin patches and marketing to local groceries and chain stores," the horticulturist said.

"The risk of growing pumpkins is that every year is different. In Arkansas, we've had good and bad growing seasons. As you expand production, you take on greater risk, just like any other part of farming. On balance, it's still a good business to be in."

Andersen said farmers have to be good marketers to make pumpkin-raising work. He said some of them do quite well by offering hay rides and other fun outdoor activities for school children and other groups in October.

The profit in raising pumpkins is proportional to the management expertise of the grower, said Andersen. "If you put a little work into it and manage your crop properly with respect to disease, insect and irrigation control, it can provide as much or more profit than row crops."

Andersen said a good yield for an acre is about 1,000 pumpkins. At 7 cents a pound for an average 20-pound pumpkin, the gross income is $1,400. He said labor at harvest reduces that by about 50 to 60 percent.

"You can grow pumpkins without any inputs, and you'll probably get something to harvest. If you have a crop failure, you don't have a lot tied up in the crop. But with every layer of management such as treating for insects and diseases that you add on, you increase costs and yields. The crop usually responds quite well to management."

Mark Luebke, a row crop farmer in southern Lonoke County, Ark., raises Indian corn and pumpkins and usually sells them at a roadside stand on his farm. This year, he didn't open up the stand and sold, instead, to "wholesale peddlers" and garden centers.

He said he started raising pumpkins to try something different. "You can make a little at it. It's a specialized market and 25 acres is a lot to sell," he said.

Lamar James is an Extension communications specialist with the University of Arkansas.

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