It's that crisp morning air, pumpkin-spice-everything time of year again... Are you looking for a real "pick your pumpkin from a field" experience? Kate de Windt was asked a number of years ago by a friend if she could grow "1000 pumpkins". She planted them and they grew and despite the often challenging growing conditions here in Alberta, read on below how she and her family have turned Somerset Farms into a place people return to visit year after year.
This past summer has been especially tough for growing pumpkins as they love heat, but in spite of the cooler and wetter than normal weather, the pumpkins are growing well and opening day is coming soon... Here now is my interview with Kate: another amazing local I am happy to introduce you to!
Laura: What is the nature of your farm and how did you start?
Kate: Somerset Farms is a U-Pick pumpkin patch located in Parkland County, AB, south-west of Stony Plain. Our pumpkin patch actually started by accident...I grew up in Ontario where I always went and picked pumpkins in the fall. When I moved to Alberta, I grew pumpkins in our small city gardens. Over time, my husband, Steve, and I realized we were both happier in the country, so we gradually moved from the city to the country. I continued to grow pumpkins and slowly friends and neighbours would ask if I could grow some for them, because they were having no luck. Every year we grew more and more, and our kids would load them in a wagon and drag them around our neighbourhood selling to everyone they knew. Eventually, in 2013, we purchased our farm land and had LOTS of space for growing pumpkins. Our friend from Edmonton asked us "Do you think you could grow 1000 pumpkins?" I laughed and said "Probably. But what am I going to do with all of them?". She assured me that we could sell them. So, in 2016, we planted around 300 pumpkin plants. It was an exceptional growing year and that fall we ended up with 1200 pumpkins! After selling to everyone we knew, we still had about 1100 left. We had started a Facebook page for our farm and we put it out in a post that we were selling pumpkins....nothing happened. So we decided to put it as a Facebook Event - "U-Pick Pumpkins". The event was shared far and wide and was a pretty terrifying for our little farm, since 2000 people said they were coming and 5000 people were interested! After all, we only had about 1100 pumpkins! Finally, it was sale day and the response was overwhelmingly positive. We sold out in two and a half hours. After that we realized there was a demand for a U-Pick pumpkin patch in our area, and so our farm began. We now grow around 8,000-10,000 pumpkins a year. This year we are growing 25 varieties of pumpkins and 7 varieties of squash.
Laura: As a kid, did you ever think you would be a “pumpkin farmer” when you grew up?”
Kate: Ha Ha, No. I actually have a degree in Marine and Freshwater Biology! I grew up wanting to work with whales and dolphins, so growing pumpkins was not on my radar. I think my real passion is "Biology" though, and although I love aquatic animals, I am also equally happy growing pumpkins. Life really is a journey and you never know where it is going to take you.
Laura: Although beautiful, summers here are shorter than a lot of the places where the majority of grocery store pumpkins are grown; what have you learned (challenges/surprises/unexpected positives) about growing pumpkins at a large scale in Alberta?
Kate: We have learned that weather plays a major role in all farming, and pumpkins are no exception. There are good years and bad ones. We try to choose short season pumpkin varieties to ensure they have enough time to mature, but we try and push the limits too. We've even teamed up with a local greenhouse, Aspen Grove Nurseries, to get our pumpkin seeds started in the spring. This helps our farm by allowing us to plant small seedlings at the end of May, instead of planting seeds directly in the ground, which gives us a better yield. Frost can also come REALLY early in Alberta. Growing pumpkins on a larger scale means it is not economical to cover the field during frost, so we either have to pick them, or lose them. This is really hard because most people want to go pumpkin picking in October, not September. Educating the public about picking pumpkins in late summer (end of August to mid September) is one of our biggest challenges. Pumpkins are a vegetable and can not survive frost or freezing, so if you want a true "u-pick" experience, you have to come early in September, before frost strikes. Pumpkins are a great winter storage vegetable though, and if cured properly, they will last until Halloween and well beyond. Despite all the challenges, we have found that Albertans are very supportive of small farms and really love U-Pick experiences.
Laura: What would you say is the advantage/benefit to people who want to buy locally grown pumpkins?
Kate: There are lots of advantages to picking a locally grown pumpkin. First, it helps to support a local family farm that is working very hard to grow the best produce possible. If you want to eat pumpkins and squash, fresh is always best. Secondly, It also gives people the opportunity to come see how they are grown, have the experience of wandering through a huge picturesque field, and talk directly to the farmer. They can learn about how they are grown, how to care for them and ask any questions they may have. Next, we have lots of variety! With 32 different types of pumpkins and squash, people can find weird/wonderful ones that the big grocery stores don't have. Lastly, People who buy locally have the advantage of knowing exactly what has happened to their pumpkins. When you buy local, you are in control of caring for your pumpkins from the time you pick them, until you eat them or set them out for Halloween. We do our best to educate every customer on how to care for their freshly picked pumpkins to ensure maximum longevity.
Laura: Do you plant pumpkin varieties for decorating or eating or both? How do you choose varieties?
Kate: Our family loves both decorating and eating pumpkins, so we always have a good mixture of both. All pumpkins are edible, even jack-o-lanterns, as long as they have not had a candle burned inside of them! Like most growers, I love seed catalogues and so I spend a lot of time flipping through seed catalogs looking for weird and wonderful varieties that people won't be able to find at their local grocery store. Since summers are short in Alberta, I sometimes have to choose the varieties based on their maturity date. Some varieties can take up to 120 days to mature, which is too long for an Alberta summer. Our farm is always open to suggestions though, and we usually have a request or two every year. We will try anything just to see if we can grow it here!
Laura: If you had to pick just one, what would you say is your favourite pumpkin or squash for pie?
Kate: I have so many, it is hard to pick just one...but I suppose it would be a sugar pie pumpkin. Honestly, there are very few that I would not use in baking!
Laura: People love to have memorable fall experiences, and picking pumpkins is high on the list. Do you have any tips on how to have the best pumpkin picking experience?
Kate: Our advice to people would be to come early in September to enjoy the best weather and selection and dress appropriately for a farm. Closed toed, flat soled shoes and long pants are best since the ground is very uneven in a pumpkin patch, and the vines are quite prickly. You can bring a lunch to eat at one of our picnic tables and don't forget your camera!
Laura: How can people best keep up with Somerset Farms news and find information about when the season opens?
Kate: People can follow along on Facebook or Instagram where we update the field conditions daily during pumpkin season. Or check our website www.Edmonton-Pick-a-Pumpkin.com for hours of operations and directions to the farm.
Opening Day is September 7, 2019!
Somerset Pumpkin Farms
photo credit: Kate de Windt of Somerset Farms