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Oregon pumpkins aren't just for Halloween

Recognized as seasonal crops, pumpkins & squash are colorful, versatile, & nutritious

Pumpkins and squash are among the few vegetable crops that are popular both as a food and a decoration. A drive down the highway or a back country road this time of year usually carries motorists in Oregon past orange-dotted fields indicating that fall has definitely arrived.

“This is one of my favorite times of year because of the appearance of pumpkins and winter squash,” says Laura Barton, trade manager with the Oregon Department of Agriculture. “They are very visible in the field, in retail, and in food service.”

Of course, that does not include all the pumpkins that adorn homes throughout the state during Halloween and the fall season.

Technically, pumpkins– which are native to North America– are considered to be certain cultivars of winter squash. 

Most states, including Oregon, commercially grow pumpkins and squash. While not among the state’s major crops, these two colorful vegetables do contribute to Oregon’s overall agricultural production. According to the most recent Census of Agriculture, there are 346 farms growing 2,031 acres of pumpkins. A vast majority are growing for the fresh market but about a dozen producers grow pumpkins for processing. Another 212 farms grow squash on 1,701 acres. Again, most are grown for the fresh market but 25 farms indicate they grow squash for processing. The top pumpkin-producing counties are Lane, Clackamas, Washington, and Marion. The combined sales value of pumpkins and squash last year in Oregon is estimated at $8.3 million.

It doesn’t take long for all those pumpkins to get harvested from the field and moved to other venues.

“You see a lot of them right now at farmers’ markets and in retail stores,” says Barton. “The farmers’ markets have fun with pumpkins with such activities as a carving contest for kids or a competition to see who can paint the best face on a pumpkin. They are just so colorful and fun.”

Many pumpkins still in the field are headed directly for someone’s home. U-pick operations this time of year incorporate several elements of the season– from erecting hay mazes and rides to offering hot apple cider– as kids and their parents march into the field to select a pumpkin of their own.

One annual event, held at Bauman Farms in Woodburn, uncovers the largest pumpkin in the state. The Giant Pumpkin Weigh Off this year brought in more than 30 contestants with the winner tipping the scales at 1,175 pounds. Last year’s winner set the record at 1,778 pounds– heavier than the average car. While pumpkin growers from California to Canada take part in the event, the past two champions have been Oregon-grown.

At the other end of the spectrum are miniature pumpkins. Autumn Harvest, a retail and wholesale business in Hubbard operated by two brothers in their early 20s, produces small ornamental pumpkins, gourds, and winter squash. The operation has customers in other states and as far away as Japan. The Wells brothers, Dylan and Darren, say one of the most popular uses of their product is for fall weddings.

Because of their appearance and association with seasonal events, it’s sometimes easy to forget that pumpkins are great to eat as well.

“Anything with that bright, deep orange color is just full of vitamin A,” says Barton. “Pumpkins and squash are incredible vegetables that provide a lot of nutrition and fiber.”

Pumpkins and squash have great storage life, meaning they can be kept around for a long time and not lose texture or quality. They can last for several months under the right conditions. However, pumpkins and squash rapidly deteriorate if the temperature drops below 50 degrees. That’s why Oregon’s pumpkin harvest generally takes place before the first frost of the year.

Everyone knows that real pumpkin can be turned into a real delicious pumpkin pie. But there are other applications for pumpkins and squash that can be used at home.

“I enjoy using the seeds of pumpkins and winter squash by drying and roasting them,” says Barton. “They make a fantastic and nutritious, high-fiber snack with lots of protein. You can incorporate the seeds into a trail mix. It’s almost a shame to throw the seeds away.”

Processed pumpkins and squash come in canned and frozen forms. They also end up in soups and purees, which lead to ingredients for such healthy products as baby food. Stahlbush Island Farms, a prominent food processor in the Corvallis area, is one of the nation’s largest processors of frozen and pureed pumpkin. Their ingredients end up in pumpkin pie, cookies, muffins, breads, soups, drinks, and side dishes. The company has an organic line of products called Farmer’s Market that has been featured in Whole Foods Markets nationwide. The product lineup includes golden pumpkin, butternut squash, and pumpkin pie mix infused with cinnamon and other spices.

Halloween appears to be the signature decorative event for the pumpkin, but Thanksgiving is the holiday most associated with pumpkin as a food. Nonetheless, pumpkins and squash can be enjoyed year around in their various forms. In fact, squashes, such as zucchini, find their way into the kitchen and dinner table in early summer. The fact that these vegetables are commonly grown in home gardens throughout Oregon indicates how easy they are to grow and prolific a crop they can be.

“Pumpkins and squash are definitely a part of Oregon’s agricultural landscape,” says Barton. “They are in demand, we don’t need to bring them in from other states, and there is a commercial industry established.”

The next time you take a bite of pumpkin pie or appreciate a well-carved jack-o-lantern, chances are you are once again admiring an Oregon agriculture product.

For more information, contact Laura Barton at (503) 872-6600.

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