The Great Pumpkin Patch in Arthur, IL is different from most fall harvest and Halloween-themed entertainment. General Manager Mac Condill’s real passion is not Jack O’ Lantern sales and devising scary events; rather, he wants to use his farm to educate the general public about the fascinating variety, beauty and flavors of squash, pumpkins and gourds.
All three are members of the cucurbit family, Condill believes they are underappreciated and underutilized. He happens to be in love with the wide variety of shapes, colors and sizes in the cucurbit family, as well as with the flavor of many of the cucurbits when they have been properly grown and harvested at full maturity.
Mac and other Condill family members plant over 300 varieties of cucurbits on 63-acres both by direct seed and with started plants each summer, with the aim of using their “Great Pumpkin Patch,” to educate customers about cucurbits.
The Condills have been wildly successful. Over 53,000 people now find their way to the farm each fall (open from Sept. 15 to Oct. 31), with 3,000 to 4,000 per day on weekends. Where did Mac’s passion to educate the world about pumpkins, squash and gourds originate? He himself admits, “I see the world through cucurbit-colored glasses.”
It all started when Mac was two years-old and his parents, life-long farmers Bruce and Mary Beth McDonald Condill, decided to add some pumpkin seeds to their children’s garden in the rich black soil of their Illinois farm. Mac’s initial fascination was sparked, then honed by a high school botany teacher, “who encouraged all things botanical,” and who now works for The Great Pumpkin Patch. Those first pumpkin seeds have, over time, literally morphed into a cucurbit business employing all three of Bruce and Mary Beth Condill’s sons, Mac, Kit and Buck, and also their wives.
But Mac’s enthusiasm for cucurbits doesn’t begin and end at the family farm. His ingenuity and knowledge have made him famous around the country, landing him cucurbit display-making jobs that showcase the visual diversity of the cucurbit family. The White House, three appearances on The Martha Stewart Show, the Chicago Botanical Gardens, “Country Living” Fairs in Columbus, OH and Atlanta, GA, as well as the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, are just a few places Mac’s showcased his talents. “I always expected us to grow and touch a lot of lives,” he says. Mac is a young man who knows how to make things happen.
The Condills have also started a seed company, The Homestead Seeds, to make seeds for hard-to-find cucurbit varieties available to ordinary gardeners. Packed in glass jars for maximum seed longevity, the Condills currently make available seed for about 200 varieties of cucurbits, including some unusual specimens that Mac traveled around the world to find. Family members spend rainy days in the fall packing the seeds.
The Condill family also bought an Amish bakery — including the recipes — and opened a commercial bakery on their farm. They offer baked goods to their customers at The Great Pumpkin Patch and give out samples of special treats made with pumpkins and squash for customers to try, such as pumpkin cookies, pumpkin pancakes and pumpkin fluff.
“A lot of people who turn their noses up at the mention of squash never really tried good cooked squash. There are also a lot of folks who think they don’t like squash because the squash they tried was picked too early, before it had fully matured. It’s a healthy, historical vegetable,” continued the indefatigable Mac Condill.
“In fact cucurbits are the third most important plant family, after grasses and legumes, for human consumption. Losing cucurbit varieties is, after all, no different from losing the rain forest plants that everyone is so concerned about, with their potential for being the basis of cancer curing drugs.”
The rest of the farm’s 200-acres are planted in a rotation of corn and soybeans in between crops of cucurbits. Crop rotation, Mac Condill believes, prevents many of the ills to which cucurbits can fall prey. “I never use fungicides,” he stated. “I haven’t seen that they’ve helped. Regular crop rotation is very important.”
This is not your average farmer speaking. Condill’s educational background is one of the best, including a fellowship in Scotland in his junior year of college, a degree in Agribusiness from Illinois State University [which recently honored him as an outstanding alumnus] and internships at the prestigious Longwood Gardens and the Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens in South Africa before he returned fulltime to the family farm.
Mac Condill has traveled the world in search of rare and unusual cucurbit varieties and has been working out complex plans to prevent individual, rare varieties from becoming extinct. His is a voice to take seriously.
A thorny problem at present is how to replenish supplies of scarce seed. There is no room on his family’s farm for the needed isolation by distance of different varieties so pollen isn’t inadvertently transferred from the wrong variety to one that is being saved for seed. The family has no time for mesh isolation tents.
Mac’s solution has been to develop a cadre of helpers across the country, from teenagers to 83 year-olds, from all walks of life, who are serious gardeners and can grow out the precious seed that is in short supply, isolated from other cucurbit varieties, to replenish it. “Some gardeners plant a row of cucurbits along the edge of their sweet corn patch. Although many cucurbits vine, they don’t have to take a lot of space if you let the vines climb on a chain link fence, an old tree, or a TV tower, for example. Those vines will climb!”
Mac is also working with a graduate student at Eastern Illinois University to try using tissue culture to increase plant numbers and thereby seed supply, for some varieties near extinction, some of which have fascinating stories. Mac learned tissue culture techniques working with orchids during his internship in South Africa, and is eager to try those techniques to increase plant numbers and seed supplies of rare cucurbits.
Future plans to raise the image of cucurbits include possibly a cookbook of cucurbit recipes and cooking classes on the home farm. He has already given conferences for home economics educators on new ways of preparing squash, and spoke at the New England Vegetable and Fruit Growers Conference in 2013.
For his biggest ever display at the National Heirloom Expo in Santa Rosa, CA, the premiere heirloom expo in the world, Mac trucked the pumpkins, squash, and gourds for the display to California in a semi, and he and his wife flew to Santa Rosa to construct the gigantic, attention grabbing cucurbit display. It was the largest collection of cucurbits ever presented.