For this month’s Farming in Focus, I wanted to do something Thanksgiving-y. The obvious choice was to try to hunt down a turkey grower and find out what I could learn about how that tasty bird gets from the farm to our Thanksgiving table. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find a turkey grower and none of the Oregon farmers I reached out to knows a turkey grower. Turns out, there aren’t very many turkeys grown in Oregon anymore. So, I went with another Thanksgiving staple: squash. I drove down to Aurora, Oregon on a very cold and rainy November day to chat about decorative pumpkins and edible squash.
Dylan Wells and his family own Autumn Harvest Inc., the largest mini pumpkin and gourd grower in Oregon. Dylan’s father originally got into agriculture at the age of 20 when he started growing tree seedlings for Christmas tree production and reforestation efforts. Eventually he switched to nursery production and grew grafted ornamentals until 2009 when the housing industry crashed and took the landscape market with it. Thankfully, in the meantime Dylan and his brother Darren had created a mini-pumpkin business initially as a way to earn enough money to go to Disneyland and later to Hawaii to see their dad inducted into the Oregon Association of Nurseries. When their roadside mini-pumpkin business inherited the Safeway decorative pumpkin contract from a neighbor, they went from growing three acres to fifteen acres and eventually when the nursery business crashed in 2009, the boys’ pumpkin business was big enough to support the family.
Today Wells runs the business with his wife, mother, and father. On about 200 acres, he grows 18 to 20 varieties of pumpkins, 25 varieties of winter squash, seven to eight varieties of gourds, and a few acres of dill weed, pickling cucumbers, and Indian corn. About seven years ago he got into edible squash which currently makes up about twenty-five percent of his business. His most popular product is the mini white pumpkin (primarily for weddings and decorations) and his top sellers in winter squash are butternut and acorn (also called danish squash.) When I asked Wells what his favorite squash is he confessed, “I don’t really care for squash.” I seriously laughed so hard I almost fell out of my chair.
While we were chatting about how Wells gets his product to market, a distributor pulled up to collect just one lonely box of red kuri squash for a local restaurant. Unlike some crops like peas, squash and pumpkin growers don’t get contracts ahead of time from the cannery. So instead of agreeing on a price ahead of time and growing a specified number of acres, Wells says he operates on the “plant and pray” approach. Starting in about January he starts placing seed orders for what he’ll plant in May. He has to guess what consumers and distributors will want based on what they bought last year. Wells sells directly to consumers in their online store (which they are actively trying to grow as it makes them the most money), and also sells wholesale and to distributors. Wells supplies pumpkins and squash to Fred Meyer, Safeway and WinCo, so next time you pick up a squash at one of those stores, it might have come from Autumn Harvest!
When I visited all the fruit had already been harvested out of the field so I didn’t get any field shots, but I did get to see the crew cleaning and packing butternut squash. Pumpkins and squash are harvested by hand with clippers starting August 15th and are brought into be washed. Here they first go through a floating, sanitizing soak to get most of the debris off.
Next they are scrubbed and rinsed by hand and run down a line of these spinning brushes. Wells told me at the height of packing he employs about 50 people, and on average they’re making about $13 per hour. His foreman makes closer to $20 per hour and he has some employees that have been working for him for years who make more than the first-timers. Forty percent of Wells’ cost is in labor, and if the minimum wage increases as it’s looking like it will, Wells told me he’ll be put out of business because he just can’t afford it. The minimum wage discussion has him already looking into investing more in real estate and considering getting out of farming all together.
Then the squash roll down the line under big fans. Moisture and heat lead to rotting squash, so getting them dry is very important. If these were decorative pumpkins, it’d be at this point that they might be sprayed with food-grade wax to make them look shiny (similar to what is done for apples.)
Next the squash are sorted by size. In the case of butternut, squash that is very small or very large often end up being sold as pre-peeled and sliced. In fact, Wells told me he grows some varieties specifically for the pre-cut market (like the massive butternut he’s holding in the first image.)
When the squash are being sorted in the last step, some go into the dump bin. Wells told me about 25 percent of his product gets kicked out as “coals.” Sometimes they get tossed aside because of size, sometimes because of scarring, rotting or broken pieces. The stores won’t take scarred squash because customers won’t buy them. Wells told me spaghetti squash are particularly susceptible to scarring as their skins are very thin and when the wind blows the vines scrape across the surface of the squash and damage it. While weeds are Wells’ biggest pest, the cucumber beetle and brown marmorated stink bug are also very serious pests. The bugs take bites out of the squash and lead to scarring and rot. Wells has an arrangement with some pig and cattle ranchers who come collect the “coals” – he essentially gives away 25 percent of his crop as livestock feed. Often he gets a free pig out of the deal, though. He can’t compost the unwanted squash because the seeds stick around and volunteer squash pop up in the wrong places. I’ve experienced this in my own backyard garden; this year I had a rogue spaghetti squash volunteer in my tomato garden out of my compost. Considering that it vines and produces fruit heavy enough to pull down my tomato cage and leaves the size of dinner plants, I can understand why Wells doesn’t want unwanted squash in the wrong field.
Wells told me when the squash are harvested they’re selecting for color and hardness. As I mentioned, planting starts in May and harvest begins August 1st and goes through November 1st, but there’s a lot that goes into making sure that red kuri squash looks just right. Squash are thirsty plants and require irrigation throughout the summer – they will abort squash production to conserve resources if it’s too hot or they don’t get enough water which happened a lot this summer when it was really hot and dry. They also produce male and female flowers, meaning they need a pollinator to create fruit. Wells rents about 150 to 200 hives for the bloom. Weeds are a problem too; Wells said if you don’t manage it right the pig weed will get four feet tall. Much of the weed management has to happen before the vines get too big because after the plants are established the only real option is hand hoeing.
I was blown away by the sheer number of bins of squash. They were everywhere: sitting inside the warehouse, sitting outside in the rain, under non-climate-controlled structures. Wells told me they plan to have it all sold by the beginning of December because once it starts to freeze the squash deteriorate and they have very little climate-controlled storage. After that they clean up, the extra squash goes to livestock feed, they maintain and repair vehicles and equipment and start ordering seeds to get there by April 15 so they can start working the ground and planting in between rain showers in May.
Wells also grows Indian corn which dries out in this structure under fans for almost a year. The corn above will be sold next fall. One of the reasons Wells grows Indian corn is because it offers crop rotation outside the cucurbita family which includes squash, pumpkin and cucumbers (so pretty much everything else Wells grows.) Squash is susceptible to mosaic virus which leaves the leaves spotted and can stunt growth and ruin a crop. Incidentally, there is one variety of GMO yellow crookneck squash that has been genetically engineered to be resistant to the mosaic virus because there aren’t good treatments for mosaic virus. The only thing to do is rotate your crops to prevent the virus from showing up. Wells trades land with other local farmers every three years, which is about how long he can grow squash on the same field before the virus shows up.
I asked Wells if he gets a lot of pressure to go organic because of the niche market he’s in. He told me he does, and he’d love to put 50 or so acres to organic production because he could triple his asking price. The only thing holding him back is the crop rotation issue I mentioned. Wells trades land with grass seed farmers for crop rotation and in order to go organic, he’d have to get them to agree to also be organic for a season as well. So far he hasn’t been successful at convincing anyone to do it.
Right before I left Wells told me he had to show me one more cool thing: Hot Skwash. Daria Knowles, an artist out of Portland, salvages unusable squash stems and corn husks to create velvet pumpkins and corn adorned with Swarovski crystals that sell in Neiman Marcus from $30 to over $100. So next fall, in addition to decorating your table with real mini-pumpkins, you can also decorate with couture squash art!
As always, I hope you learned something cool about squash production today. Leave a comment if you did!