MIDDLETOWN — Mary Howell knows the weather is unpredictable, but she's planning a shorter harvest season because an early hard freeze is forecast.
“It’s staring us in the face,” Howell said of the possibility. “Some years it never happens and some years it does, but it's always looming.”
Howell, her husband and two sons own and operate Howell Farms, 12261 S. Henry County Road 600W, Middletown. The family farm is a supplier of decorative pumpkins and grows more than 500 acres of pumpkins. This year’s pumpkin crop has been good, she said.
Mild temperatures and ideal weather conditions promised high yields early in the growing season. But a lack of rainfall and extreme heat in August impacted crop conditions and yields.
“It was very good until August, then it stopped raining, and that causes the size to be a little bit less than optimum,” Howell said.
Howell Farms was founded in 1972. Crops grown on the farm include tomatoes, pumpkins, corn and soybeans. At one point, Howell said, the family operated a small pick-your-own pumpkin patch, but has since expanded into a national supplier of pumpkins. She said the pumpkins grown on her farm are now shipped across the United States to scattered destinations, including Maine, Oklahoma, Florida and New York.
Howell noted predictions of an early, hard freeze on Oct. 12. That jibes with the Midwestern Regional Climate Center's forecast of the first freeze occurring between Oct. 11 and Oct. 20. According to predictions from the Old Farmer’s Almanac, a decline in solar activity and weather patterns will also bring below-normal temperatures and above-normal snow accumulations this winter.
“We've been working really hard to get as much as we can out of the fields every day,” Howell said. “We're really happy with our progress so far.”
A light frost won't interfere with harvesting, but Howell said a hard freeze will end both the pumpkin and tomato harvest season.
According to experts, harvesting can continue through a light frost, but a hard freeze – when temperatures drop below 27 degrees - can damage the surface of pumpkins, creating problems with fungus, bacterial growth and fruit rot.
“It’s not marketable at that point,” Howell said.
Pumpkins are more difficult to grow when compared to corn and soybeans, she said. The crops must constantly be inspected for diseases and insect damage.
“It is difficult to harvest, market and sell, but the reward on the other side of that is there is a potential for a greater return per acre,” she said. “You earn every bit of that, though.”
Loren Schmierer, owner of Stonycreek Farms, 11366 State Road 38 East, Noblesville, operates a pick-your-own pumpkin patch.
“We sell about 50,000 pumpkins a year,” he said.
Schmierer said last year was a bad year for growing pumpkins, but this year has been good.
“Last year it was so dry we had to start planting in our greenhouse,” he said. “It was a lot of work. We don’t want to do that again.”
Schmierer said it will be a good for year for picking pumpkins until the freeze hits. He noted that, some years when temperatures stay mild, some pumpkins in the fields are still fresh when people are cutting Christmas trees on his farm.
“It’s a freebie at that point,” he said of the pumpkins still in fields during December.
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Did you know? Pumpkin flowers are edible. In early colonial times, pumpkins were used as an ingredient for the crust of pies, not the filling. A hollowed out pumpkin shell was filled with milk, honey and spices before it was baked. Eighty percent of the pumpkin supply in the United States is available in October. Sources: www.livestrong.com, www.urbanext.illinois.edu and New Hampshire Department of Agriculture, Markets & Food.