Sarah Talley was just a kid when she started helping her mother deliver melons from southern Indiana to grocery stores around her hometown of Keenes, Ill. At 31, she now heads Frey Farms, which includes one the nation's largest pumpkin patches, supplying Wal-Mart, Kroger and other national retailers. Her 1,200-acre plot -- of which about 750 acres are devoted to Halloween's signature fruit -- employs 200 workers during peak season. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, farms in Illinois, Pennsylvania, and other major pumpkin-producing states grew more than 1 billion pounds of pumpkins last year for a total of $101 million in sales, up from $80 million just two years ago.
And while pumpkins destined to become Halloween jack-o-lanterns account for many of those sales, Talley says she has worked to carve out a niche in the more lucrative home-decorating market that's seeing so-called heirloom pumpkins featured in the pages of Martha Stewart Living, Country Living, and other national magazines. In her new book, For the Love of Pumpkins, Talley offers not only a beginner's guide to the wide array of pumpkin varieties around the world, but also a pumpkin lover's catalogue of fall decorating tips and recipes.
Inc.com recently caught up with Talley to get the scoop on a real seed-capital business.
How was this year's pumpkin harvest?
At one point we thought we were looking at a severe crop shortage, because of the drought during the growing season here in the Midwest. We did catch some later rains that helped the crop fill out and mature. We certainly didn't set any records this year, but all in all we still had a pretty good crop.
How busy do you get around Halloween?
Halloween is the biggest time of year for the jack-o-lanterns. But the fall has become such an extended decorating season now that people aren't just buying pumpkins for Halloween. They're buying them earlier than ever before and they're buying them later than ever before. The heirloom pumpkins are our fastest-growing product lines. They're all different colors, shapes, and textures with lots of different uses. We carry those through until about mid-November. And then we have the pie pumpkins on up until Thanksgiving and into the holidays.
Don't most people use regular jack-o-lantern pumpkins for baking pies?
Jack-o-lantern pumpkins can be used for culinary purposes, but it's not recommended. It's a stringier type of meat that doesn't turn into a good puree. There are much better pumpkins for cooking. My favorite right now is the Jarrahdale pumpkin. It's an Australian variety of pumpkin that's blue and has a kind of nutty flavor. I make all of my pies for Thanksgiving out of these pumpkins. My favorite recipe is a Pumpkin roll. It's kind of like a pumpkin cake with a cream cheese pumpkin filling. It's easy to make, though it's time consuming.
Ever try growing one of those giant pumpkins?
We do grow those. The biggest one was around 200 or 250 pounds. We don't grow the really big 800-pound ones. We do it because costumers actually request those. It's more of a novelty item, but we sell them. It's a matter of the seed varieties and a lot of different tricks, but we don't go there and de-bloom the plant or inject it with B9.