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Kent growers enjoying bumper crop of pumpkins this Halloween

PUBLISHED: 09:24 31 October 2017 | UPDATED: 09:24 31 October 2017

Dan Mackleden Farm's pumpkins

Dan Mackleden Farm's pumpkins

Archant

Farmers are making the most of the staggeringly short season

You’ll be hard pushed to have not to see a pumpkin staring out at you over these last few days in the build up to Halloween - and the chances are many of them will have been grown right here in Kent.

With this year’s unusual weather patterns of warm and wet, the growers across the county are harvesting a decent crop.

With prices remaining stable, buyers shouldn’t notice much of a change from last year, but the farmers are still wishing there was a market for the striking orange vegetable beyond Halloween.

In the meantime, they are making the most of the staggeringly short season.

John Harris, at Broadditch Farm Shop in Southfleet, near Gravesend, told us: “We grow about two acres of pumpkins each year which usually produces about 3,000 pumpkins.

“We use about 600 for our carving workshops during half term week and the rest are sold through the farm shop.

“This year has been a good growing year for the crop with good quality and colour however the wet period of weather through August has led to some issues with a percentage of the crop going rotten.

“They do not like sitting on wet soil.

“Despite this loss we will have plenty of good pumpkins to sell. As with Christmas trees and their life span, pumpkins do not sell after October 31 so any that are left will be ploughed back in.”

He added: “We price our pumpkins by the kilogramme although many charge by size. Our prices will be the same as the last year which is 70p/kg.

“Demand is usually steady until the local supermarkets run out then it can be a mad rush as people are desperate to find a pumpkin.

“They start off green and need plenty of sun to ripen them.”

And Mr Harris laments the fact they are generally carved up and tossed away. Something another producer is keen to change.

Laura Brady from The Wonky Parsnip in Chatham adds: “We grew, and are still growing, around 20-25 varieties of squashes and pumpkins.

“We sell through of mix of ways - our onsite shop, we put them in veg boxes, chefs and restaurants we work with often have them and we sell a few at farmers markets

“This is proof there’s demand away from Halloween, but it’s important to educate people that you can eat them.

“A lot of English people haven’t had pumpkins or squashes introduced into their diet apart from butternut squash.

“People from abroad seem to know what to do with them and eat them a lot more, especially Australian and American customers.”

At the other end of the spectrum is the staff at the Dan Mackelden Farm in Chart Sutton, which supplies around one million pumpkins to the major supermarkets nationally.

Starting off with a single acre they now plant a staggering 200.

Spokesman Jemma Thompson said: “The market has been growing steadily over the years and even now we try to grow a few more than previous years.

“The weather dictates how many we end up with, but it has been good this year, so the six week pick, all done by hand, should provide a decent supply. Two years ago, it wasn’t so good - things have improved weather-wise considerably since then. You never know what the weather is going to do.

“A team of about 10 people are out there doing everything by hand.

“But this year we are growing some different varieties - mostly different coloured ones like white or blue, and even some with bobbles on them.

“It seems Brits are getting more discerning about their pumpkins.

“We also have set aside around 15 acres for pick-your-own which was running during October at the farm in Sevington. This is the only contact our pumpkins have with the public, the rest goes to the supermarkets.

“For the traditional orange pumpkin, the market is pretty much zero at the end of October, but there is some demand for other squashes, and we do a few of them, but very few at this stage.

“We do send some to Ireland, but mainly they go to the south of England.

“Obviously being large, it costs a lot to transport vast quantities of pumpkins therefore they tend to only be transported shorter distances.”

She added: “It is profitable, but we are not jetting away to the Caribbean.”

At Stanhill Farm in Dartford, Toby Williams said they have recently doubled their acreage dedicated to pumpkins to around four acres, and with the early sun this year, looks like harvesting something like 15,000.

He told us: “If we don’t sell them by the end of the month, we will be eating a lot of pumpkin soup in November.

“We have had some slightly higher losses this year because of the weather - something like 20 per cent, whereas last year it was more like 10 per cent.

“But our numbers are much higher than in recent years and we will have enough to satisfy our commitments.”

At the Wilmington farm, he said: “Around half the harvest goes to wholesale and the rest is sold in the farm shop. They have ripened a bit early, so we are looking after them carefully.”

Market analysts Mintel said Brits spent £310 million on Halloween in 2016, up five per cent in 2015, with carving pumpkins the most popular activity over the spooky season.

The nation’s top five Halloween activities were sorting out a pumpkin at 13 per cent, followed by watching a scary film on 12 per cent, dressing up in fancy dress or facepaint with 10 per cent of us, and then decorating the home or garden on nine per cent. Hosting or attending a party or dinner party is loved by eight per cent.

Retail analyst Alice Goody said: “The popularity of pumpkin carving, dressing up and face paint creates an opportunity for retailers to tap into the desire for experiences by offering in-store Halloween workshops, such as pumpkin-carving ideas or face painting tutorials.”

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