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Rutgers Class Helps Grow Better Pumpkins
Michelle Casella can be reached at email@example.com or 856-307-6476
This year, Rich Norz has more than enough pumpkins growing on his 45-acre pumpkin patch to supply all the consumers who come to pick and purchase pumpkins at Norz Hill Farm and Market in Hillsborough.
He doesn’t know exactly how many harvestable fruits he has on his land, but last year, he had to import pumpkins to sell. “I wouldn’t say it’s the best we’ve ever had, but considering the hot dry summer, a pretty good crop,” Norz said.
Norz can give some of the credit for his good crop to Rutgers Cooperative Extension, a unit of the New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station, and to its Mid-Atlantic Pumpkin School, a one-day workshop that teaches farmers how to grow better pumpkins. Norz has attended the workshop twice.
“I’ve been a grower for many years, so I’m not learning something right from scratch, but whenever you go to something like that you can pick up new information,” Norz said. “And just being in the same room with other growers is good, because they may be doing something different, and you can learn from them.”
The 2013 edition of the school will meet at the Rutgers Cooperative Extension’s Burlington County office in Westampton on Jan. 18. Experts from Rutgers, Penn State University and other institutions will be on hand to answer questions and offer advice to pumpkin growers. There are about 100 farms growing pumpkins on about 1,000 acres in New Jersey, according to Michelle Casella, agricultural agent in Gloucester County and the coordinator of the Pumpkin School. Topics that often come up include; which varieties of pumpkin grow best in what type of soil, the importance of identifying insect pests before spraying insecticide, agritourism, and the latest news about diseases that could affect the pumpkin crop in the coming year.
Alan Habiak, who rotates pumpkins on 36 of his 100 acres on a farm in South Brunswick, is also an alumnus of the class. He had planted pumpkins for years signing up for pumpkin school a couple of years ago. “I wanted to find better ways to do things,” Habiak said “I wanted to start spraying to keep my pumpkins in good shape and know what the best variety of pumpkin would be to grow. And I wanted to stay up to date on diseases and pests.”
The pumpkin is a member of the squash family, and, though it is treated like a vegetable, it is technically a fruit. Pumpkins are planted in May or June and harvested in the fall, and range in size from one pound to 1,000 pounds – though Ron Wallace, a grower in Greene, Rhode Island, produced an Atlantic Giant pumpkin this year that weighed of 2,009. For growers like Norz and Habiak, it’s numbers, and not size, that matters, since their customers have to be able pick their pumpkins up and carry them to their cars. Norz says his pumpkins weight between 10 and 50 pounds.
“Pumpkins are difficult to grow because they are particularly prone to diseases and pests, and so require frequent applications of pesticides and fungicides to grow into high-quality pumpkins,” Casella said. “It’s just about impossible to grow good pumpkins organically. Weather conditions and insect populations would have to be just right for that to happen, and our New Jersey climate isn’t conducive to those conditions.”
Most New Jersey pumpkins, she said, end up as Jack-O-Lanterns, or as part of decorative displays, rather than in pies, bread or soups, and most are purchased by consumers directly from farmers at farm stands or in pick-your-own operations.
Norz and Habiak are typical growers, because they both use pumpkins as part of their agritourism strategies. At Norz Hill Farm and Market, customers can take a hayride, get lost in a corn maze, pick a pumpkin and hopefully think of Norz Hill when it comes time to buy produce in the spring. Habiak also runs a pick-your-own operation and sells pumpkins wholesale to farmers who have farm stands but don’t grow pumpkins.
Through its Integrated Pest Management program, Rutgers Cooperative Extension also makes “scouting services” available to farmers. Pest management scouts visit the fields and look for early signs of disease or pests, then experts advise the farmers on remedial action, thus saving farmers from spraying when they don’t have to or using the wrong fungicide or insecticide.
Norz takes advantage of this service; Habiak does his own scouting. But both work hard to grow this big, orange, popular but touchy squash. “If my pumpkin crop really went south, that would be a problem,” Habiak said. “It’s about a third of what I do here.”
Media Contact: Ken Branson
732-932-7084, ext. 633