by Bill and Mary Weaver
Jack Diffey, from the town of Louisiana in Missouri, has a demanding full-time job for Crop Production Services as a crop advisor and in sales for area specialty crop growers. On the side, in the past 25 years, he has developed an interesting, engrossing business growing and selling 120 different varieties of pumpkins, squash and gourds, planted on six to eight acres each year.
Jack and his wife Debbie market this menagerie, many of them heirloom varieties, at their home. “We set up a stand in mid-September and sell through October,” said Diffey.
Sales are partially on a self-service honor system. “Debbie or someone in the family is usually around afternoons and weekends during this time to make change, but the rest of the time, the money box is there for people to pay. I think it’s better to think that people are honest. I know other growers who also do this, and our self-serve farm market has been working pretty well,” said Diffey. He keeps prices reasonable, “so everyone can afford to decorate for the fall season or carve a pumpkin for Halloween.”
Diffey’s son Kyle and daughter-in-law Leah enjoy helping in the field and also sell his bounty at some local farmers markets as well as in the St. Louis area.
Customers will drive considerable distances to buy from Diffey, some as part of an annual fall sightseeing tour, just to enjoy the variety of shapes, sizes and colors he grows. “I don’t grow a lot of any one variety, but I’m always looking for something new in shape or color.” Many of the hybrid pumpkin varieties include resistance to powdery mildew.
“Customers always like to see something new every year, but they want their old favorites too,” Diffey noted, which explains why the number of varieties has reached 120 for 2016. “For ‘new’ this past season, I added additional pumpkin varieties in white, warted and small ornamental types.”
Once harvested, the squash, pumpkins and gourds are stored in a small greenhouse on the farm, which is covered with shade cloth, where customers can come to purchase them. Prices are marked on each item with masking tape.
In pumpkins for carving, Diffey particularly looks for varieties with good handle size and quality. “Good soil fertility and a foliar application of calcium, like Nutri-cal, seem to help. I particularly like ‘Gold Medal’ from Rupp for a carving variety. Besides a strong stem, it also has some size and shape variations, giving customers more choices.
“In squash for eating, my preferred varieties are ‘JWS6832’ for Butternut, ‘Jet’ for acorn squash, ‘Primavera’ for spaghetti squash, and ‘Sun Spot’ for Buttercup.” All these varieties produce uniform-sized squash, which work well for him to sell by the piece, rather than by the pound. These varieties also seem to be more of a personal size, which is what his customers seem to prefer.
“Most of what I sell, though, is used for decoration. For example, customers like my lumpy blue ‘Shamrock’ squash. It has lobes like a clover.” ‘Shamrock’ is a rare variety from Australia that goes back to at least 1918. It was imported into the U.S. in 1932. Another rare heirloom that customers appreciate is ‘Australian Butter,’ a 15-pound peach/pink squash often used for decoration, but which has fine flesh that is good for pies and baking.
‘Moonshine’ available from Johnny’s, is a glossy white, and comes with a strong handle and a smooth skin, which makes it popular for painting. ‘Cinderella’ from Harris among others, is an heirloom selected from an old French variety. “If you start me talking about pumpkins,” Diffey laughed, “you might have trouble getting me to stop. I have so many unusual kinds that I’ve found over the years.”
In gourds, some favorites with Diffey’s customers include the small winged gourds, and the large warted ‘Lunch Lady’ gourds from Harris. He also grows some of the hard-shelled lagenaria gourds, (which have white flowers, unlike the yellow-flowered cucurbits), including Birdhouse, Swan, and some of the larger hard shelled ones.
Diffey seems to enjoy the annual ritual of hand planting the seeds, his only option with so many varieties that have different days to maturity and space requirements. The extra work does make for long days. “I start field prep in May, and plant from June 1 through July 4. With other care needed during the growing season, I don’t get much else done until the end of October.”
He plants some of his decorative varieties into the killed rye cover crop to keep the fruits off the ground, and finds that the fall-planted cover crop seems to help with soil moisture retention. “To get the plants off to a good start, I use FarMore F1400, available from many of the seed companies, as a seed treatment. This FarMore formulation contains fungicides plus an insecticide that gives four weeks’ protection from cucumber beetles. After that, I spray for insects based on scouting, checking also for aphids and squash bugs. I always spray late in the evening to avoid bee concerns.
“For disease, particularly because many of these heirlooms are lacking PM resistance, I spray on a regular schedule. The University of Illinois Extension has some good commercial spray schedules for pumpkins that are helpful for both diseases and insects. It’s important to alternate modes of action to reduce resistance issues.”
Since part of Diffey’s 85 acre farm is in woods, open fields and hedgerows, with plenty of undisturbed ground for a habitat for ground nesting native pollinators, he has found that he can depend on native bees and other insects for pollination, an advantage of having a farm that is only partly tillable.
In preparation for the next year’s cucurbit crop, in late fall, Diffey seeds two bushels per acre of cereal rye, with P and K spread, then disced. “In the spring, I spray planting strips with Roundup, in a pattern of 5 rows each 10 feet apart, then skip a row to allow a driving row for spraying/ harvesting.” The longer, more vigorous vines are planted in the center of the block of five rows, with the shorter-vining and bush varieties in the outer rows, but the driving rows are usually all filled in by the end of the season, so he’s driving over vines.
In May, I ridge the planting strips and take a soil test. Next the entire field gets an application of Roundup to kill all the rye, and I re-hill with coulters to make ridges which warm earlier and shed excess water.” A pre-emergence herbicide, such as Strategy, Dual, or Sandia follows, depending on what will be planted in that field the next year.
“I set up drip irrigation, but don’t always need to use it. When irrigation is needed, I pump out of a creek into a 20,000 gallon storage tank, set high enough to give me about 20 PSI pressure for the system. I use a disc filter.”
Growing a side business
by Bill and Mary Weaver