With Halloween just days away, Lucy Oates finds how an experiment has become frighteningly successful.
The ancient custom of celebrating Halloween has enjoyed a resurgence in recent years and one East Yorkshire farming family has seized the opportunity to develop a successful, sideline.
Three years ago, Jason Butler, 31, came up with the idea of growing pumpkins on his family’s 60-acre smallholding at Bewholme near Driffield.
He explained: “I wanted to do something different. We usually grow wheat, winter beans and grass, but I planted a quarter of an acre with 1,000 pumpkin plants to start with.”
Jason’s gamble paid off as demand for the Butler family’s unusual crop soared. Since then, they’ve allocated more land for pumpkins each year. This year, in early April, they sowed 8,000 seeds in pots in their greenhouse and the resulting plants were transferred into the fields in late May. The wet conditions during the early part of this year’s growing season and the poor summer mean that it’s unlikely to be a bumper crop as pumpkins like plenty of sunshine, but Jason is still expecting each plant to produce at least one fruit, maybe two. After weeding and watering the crop during the summer months, the Butler family begin harvesting pumpkins from mid-September onwards. This involves cutting the vines and leaving the fruit in the field for a week to 10 days to allow the sun to toughen their skins and dry out the stalks so that they can be stored properly.
What was previously a quieter period on the family’s smallholding – after their wheat and other crops have been harvested – is now one of their busiest times of year.
The Butlers mainly grow the larger varieties of pumpkin that are ideal for carving into lanterns. They sell them from a roadside stall outside their farm, as well as at local farmers’ markets; Beverley’s annual Food Festival, which took place earlier this month; at the Michaelmas Fair at Burton Agnes, which takes place this weekend and through a network of East Yorkshire Farm Shops, including Rafters at Driffield, the Sunderlandwick Estate Farm Shop at Kelleythorpe, Manor Farm Shop at Cranswick and the Whole Hog at Malton.
Jason added: “We usually grow four or five different varieties, including Pie Star, which is ideal for culinary use in soups and pies, and the larger types, such as Mars, Racer, Rocket and Harvest Moon, which are great for carving.
“There’s a lot of work to be done in the spring when we plant them out using a planting machine, but not so much in the summer, which is good as we’re busy harvesting our other crops then. In the autumn, it’s all go and the main market is for Halloween, so if you’ve not sold them all by 31 October, you’ve missed an opportunity. However, we’re finding that more people want to try cooking with the smaller types, so we sold more of those at Beverley Food Festival this year, where we also supplied recipes for customers to try.”
He joked: “I usually carve a few pumpkin lanterns out ready to sell at the Michaelmas Fair – I’ve become a dab hand and am getting quite creative these days! Most people prefer to carve their own though as that’s the fun part.”
Although Jason’s decision to experiment has clearly paid off, he insists it’s really just a sideline that complements his family’s business as a whole: “I enjoy growing them and it’s quite a novel crop as there are not many grown this far north with it being cooler, although there are some in Lincolnshire. They look pretty spectacular in the fields and people are always commenting on them. However, it’s really just something that fits nicely around the other crops we grow, with the pumpkin harvest being after the traditional harvest time for wheat and other crops.
“There’s not a vast amount of money to be made from them – we sell from our stall here at the farm from 50p upwards, depending on size.”
How to Make a perfect lantern
Jason Butler’s tips for carving the perfect Halloween lantern (which may need adult help with cutting) include:
Choose a nicely-shaped pumpkin with a flat bottom so that it will sit upright.
Cut the lid out first and then scoop out the flesh; an ice cream scoop is ideal.
Draw a face on the skin to make sure you get your design right before using a sharp knife to cut it out.
Tea light candles can go inside, but battery-operated candle-effect lights are much safer, particularly if children are to carry the lanterns.
Jason Butler’s favourite Pumpkin Muffins (makes 18)
½ cup butter
¾ cup brown sugar
¼ cup honey
1 cup pumpkin purée
1½ cups flour
1 tsp baking soda
¼ tsp salt
½ cup chopped nuts (pecans or walnuts)
1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees fahrenheit (205 degrees centigrade). 2. Cream the butter. Gradually beat in the sugar. 3. Add the honey, egg, and pumpkin, mixing well. 4. Combine the dry ingredients and add to the pumpkin mixture. Stir in the nuts 5. Fill greased muffin tins three-quarters full. Bake for 18 minutes.