Halloween was almost scary for David Bowman. The market for pumpkins, of which he grows three million across 200ha, is defined by a three-week spell of frenetic action in the build-up to the witching hour on 31 October.
This is when 100 or so hired hands take to the fields in Spalding, Lincolnshire, to harvest giant orbs of orange. The team, says Bowman, "work like there's no tomorrow", and it's all to satisfy a surging demand from supermarkets to stock pumpkins right next to the green gunge, witches' hats and plastic spiders. Only this year had one of the driest springs ever, which meant planting seed deeper to reach moisture. Then came the wet summer and, instead of orange orbs in September, the pumpkins more closely resembled the green gunge in colour. Bowman is one of Europe's biggest growers, and those 100 staff cost him £10,000 a day.
But Bowman's family farm has been growing pumpkins for nearly 60 years and doesn't spook easily. He shifted the entire crop into the warmth of a warehouse to let them ripen so all the major supermarkets had the quintessential creepy cucurbits, more sought after as a candle holder than culinary delight. For now.
"The market is almost totally driven by Halloween, but there is an increasing consumer demand that goes beyond scooping out a pumpkin and cutting a face into the surface for a lantern. More people are eating the vegetable and I am now trialling a new variety for cooking," Bowman says.
Right now, the variety is at the number stage, so doesn't have a typically evocative seasonal name like Harvest Moon, Bowman's main variety. The shape is iffy, he says, but it tastes good. Bowman is in year two of trials and toying with more acreage to supply a market that sees a quarter of his crop sent to Spain, Holland and Ireland.
Halloween is well-established, but demand this year may be muted, reckons Bowman. "If you are short of money, you don't buy the kids a pumpkin. I feel we've hit a plateau - there are only so many people who will buy pumpkins. We have probably reached the limit and so marketing, like more acreage, is not needed."
Steve Whitworth is not so sure. The sales manager for Oakley Farm, another 200ha Harvest Moon hotspot, expects demand to increase and cites a need for sharper marketing. Peas and carrots, for example, have well-oiled marketing machines, but what makes them stand apart is not promotional prowess but market saturation.
"They reached a point where there was nowhere else to go, so the marketing desks had to push sales further," he explains. "Our core customers are seeing year-on-year growth in pumpkins and there's still a level of retailer out there that has not yet got into it as big as the high-street retailers have."
Testing the market
Whitworth is thinking of garden centres, which "have yet to embrace Halloween and push it harder as a themed event", and non-food retailers that flog Halloween for all it's worth and could perhaps find a corner for pumpkins.
He would dearly like independent market statistics, trend data or research, but there is little out there for such a niche crop (see box). Whitworth is nevertheless optimistic and this has prompted his business to invest in bespoke rigs for harvesting and washing crops in the field.
It paid off, for this year was good, he says. Seeds went in under drought conditions, so took more time to establish. Like Bowman, Whitworth found the cool summer made colouring drag a little longer, but excellent silty soils, a good feeding regime and warming up in glasshouses and polytunnels did the trick.
"We lost a few pumpkins because of the cool summer, but we hit our targets. Yields were down five or six per cent on last year, but that was a bumper year with exceptional conditions. We also grow for the culinary market, which has achieved year-on-year growth, so we do a lot of work on varieties good on quality and size," he says.
Nathan Dellicott, farm director at Barfoots of Botley based in Bognor Regis, West Sussex, is also blazing a trail with his "spooky corner" test bed. He too supplies the main supermarkets, with Butternut, Onion, Acorn, Gem, Spaghetti, Kabocha and Crown Prince squash, as well as various pumpkins such as Ghost Rider, Tom Fox and the giant Sumo (see box). "We are always looking for something new," he says of the 55ha of land given over to pumpkins and squash. "This year we did a pumpkin for Halloween called Cinderella. It's squat and good for scooping. We are also using a giant squash variety and selling it as a pumpkin - it can be hollowed out but still tastes excellent."
The outlook is promising, believes Dellicott. "There are a lot of opportunities. So many people associate Butternut as the only squash they can use, so there are loads of culinary delights around the corner, but you need the right variety and marketing channels. Demand is there and its rise continues to baffle me.
"I started on five acres in a corner and wondered if the crop would sell. Halloween has taken off and given the crop a whole new meaning. Yet it's still only a few people buying them and more could follow suit. The main problem is not growing but logistics - boxing up, loading and offloading huge lorryloads in a short time."
CR Melton manager Keith Kendal takes a more tempered view of the 40ha he dedicates to Harlequin, Celebration, Onion and Butternut squash for supermarkets and farm shops. This season was on a par with last year, but so few households appreciate squashes, he says. "Squash is not mainstream enough and the vegetable needs more promotion, which are two things you could not say about the general market for Halloween."
Waitrose rolls out the Sumo
Halloween was a scream for Waitrose last year. Forget the witches' hats and carving kits, sales of large pumpkins jumped 676 per cent year on year.
This was, according the supermarket, thanks to its new and mighty Sumo pumpkins. The 40kg Sumo, up to five times the size of regular pumpkins, is grown by Barfoots of Botley.
The Sumo bounced back into Waitrose stores this Halloween and is the largest vegetable available in a UK supermarket, taking two people to lift one, insists Waitrose, which supplies the so-called "pumpkin porters". The super-sized pumpkin costs around £25 and contains up to 30kg of flesh, enough for 120 bowls of pumpkin soup or 360 slices of pie. Waitrose also sells a mini Munchkin pumpkin, which starts at 100g, 400 times lighter than a Sumo.
Barfoots farm director Nathan Dellicott, who has being growing pumpkins for Waitrose for 19 years, says: "We sowed the seeds in May so the plants were well established to take advantage of the warm start to the summer. August rainfall helped boost last-minute growth.
"Excellent growing conditions make the Sumo bigger and better looking just when it matters. Timing is important because a perfect pumpkin on 1 November is like a Christmas tree on Boxing Day - blooming useless. We are developing new varieties and hybrid pumpkins to deliver more consistent results. We are always pushing boundaries and yields because the returns at the other end tend to get lower, not higher."
Where's the research?
Pumpkin grower David Bowman is not happy: "I throw my money at the Horticultural Development Company (HDC) and get nothing back. If I were growing carrots or gladioli they would no doubt fall over backwards to fund research. But this is a fragmented market with three to four big pumpkin players and many smaller growers."
HDC says it has no market statistics or trend information on pumpkins and squashes, a "small niche crop", while Defra statistics similarly do not specify them because they are a minor crop.
Tozer Seeds, however, hosts pumpkin and squash variety-trial open days at its site in Cobham, Surrey. The last major one, two years ago, showed off more than 50 varieties of pumpkin and 30-plus of winter squash. "New and improved products include culinary and carving pumpkins, Butternut squash and speciality winter squash," says a spokesman. "Growth in pumpkin sales has continued steadily over the past few years and consumer demand is at an all-time high.
"Butternut varieties dominate the sales of winter squash, and Crown Prince and Kabocha are also popular. The long storage potential of winter squash allows for an extended sales period that can continue from harvest through to spring the following year. Tozer is the only company breeding winter squash for UK production."