September 6, 2010

Pumpkins plump a bit early

The hot, dry summer causes many to ripen sooner than usual, but farmers say they will last a while.

By Kelley Bouchard
Staff Writer

The growing season got off to a disappointing start at the Snell Family Farm in Buxton.

click image to enlarge

Jodie Jordan and his nephew, Sam Rideout, 1, pick a few pumpkins at Alewives Brook Farm in Cape Elizabeth.

John Patriquin/Staff Photographer

click image to enlarge

Carolyn Snell looks over some of the early harvest at Snell Family Farm in Buxton.

John Patriquin/Staff Photographer

A hard frost in May destroyed most of the tiny apples and pears that were just starting to form on the farm's fruit trees.

But last week -- two weeks ahead of schedule -- the Snells started harvesting a bountiful pumpkin crop that will help offset the earlier loss.

"It doesn't hurt," said Ramona Snell, who runs the farm with her husband, John.

It has been a perfect summer for pumpkins, with lots of sunny days and warm nights encouraging them to grow fat and ripen early in fields across the Northeast.

Pumpkins are so plentiful this year, farmers say, that shoppers will be able to choose from a wide range of sizes, shapes and even colors to decorate the front porch, carve into jack-o-lanterns or bake in pies.

As it turns out, weather that had many people buying air conditioners or heading for the nearest lake is pumpkin nirvana.

"They like it hot," said Richard Brzozowski, an agricultural educator with the University of Maine Cooperative Extension in Cumberland County.

Pumpkins, like many vine crops, prefer hot, dry conditions overall, with regular watering, Brzozowski said.

At Alewives Brook Farm in Cape Elizabeth, Jodie Jordan already has several pumpkins on display in the farm's market. Customers who want to pick their own can choose from about 3,000 pumpkins in his 2-acre pumpkin patch on Old Ocean House Road.

"We usually don't worry about pumpkins ripening up until mid- to late-September," Jordan said.

Because rain was so scarce this summer, Jordan and other farmers had to water their pumpkins.

"They need a lot of water, because they're about 90 percent water," Jordan said.

At Intervale Farm in New Gloucester, Jan Wilcox irrigated the 2-acre patch where she grows more than 75 varieties of pumpkins, squashes and gourds.

Wilcox noted that pumpkins also have industrious root systems that often send out additional roots near each pumpkin's stem.

Wilcox started harvesting pumpkins last week, well before the Sept. 11 opening of her market on Intervale Road.

Ripe pumpkins left in the field will be severed from the vines to slow ripening and prevent diseases from traveling through the stem.

She expects to produce thousands of pumpkins this season in a wide variety of sizes, from 200-pound wonders to "teeny-tiny" table ornaments.

They also come in many colors, from traditional orange and white to the more novel blue and pink.

Despite an early harvest, farmers say it won't be difficult to find pumpkins come Halloween or even Thanksgiving.

"Some of our pumpkins still aren't ripe," Wilcox said. "We won't have to move the date up for Halloween."

For people who buy pumpkins sooner than later, Wilcox recommends keeping them dry and moving them indoors or covering them with a towel on cold nights.

Wilcox plans to cover any pumpkins left in her field with large tarps.

At Snell Family Farm, workers are moving ripe pumpkins to benches in a well-ventilated greenhouse that has been covered with a shade cloth.

Ramona Snell expects the pumpkins will attract customers to the farm's market on Route 112, where they'll also discover squashes, broccoli, onions, garlic, sunflowers and other crops that thrived through a long, hot summer.

"Even the weeds did well this season," Snell said. "But you know, the sun shines on the just and the unjust alike."

Staff Writer Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at 791-6328 or at:


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