Comparing strategies and evaluating the economics of alternative, non-conventional approaches to small scale pumpkin growing in the Midwest.

Progress report for FNC23-1393

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2023: $14,999.00
Projected End Date: 01/31/2025
Grant Recipient: Oconto Riviera
Region: North Central
State: Wisconsin
Project Coordinator:
Dr. Riley Sowle
Oconto Riviera
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Project Information

Description of operation:

Farm Description: My wife and I purchased our 22-acre property in March of 2020. The farm had been idle and hadn't received any tillage, chemicals or sprays for many years prior to our purchase. The only management was cutting the hay off the fields each year. The first year we set up and managed our horses on roughly two acres. The second year we started no-till sunflowers and got into ducks for eggs. This year we built another barn, expanded the sunflowers and more. I began a manure management system for the horses, started making high quality hot compost and started growing pumpkins on our light sandy soil. Each year we are bringing a little more of our land back into production. We are in pursuit of attaining the most sustainable, economically viable use of our land and farm-produced products while avoiding tillage and harsh chemical usage as much as we can.

Background & Experience: I'm a Chiropractor with a Master's Degree in Exercise Science and Health Promotion and an Undergraduate Degree in Natural Resources. Although relatively new to farming, it is clear that natural and regenerative agriculture concepts resonate very strongly with me and my wife. She grew up on a dairy farm with horses, as it turns out she still loves horses and I love making compost - a match made in heaven. We are seeking a sustainable closed loop fertility system for our farm using our own hay for the horses which produce manure that is composted and applied as fertilizer to a cash crop like pumpkins.

My role in this project is in it's design and implementation. I will be performing the majority of the labor, recording data and presenting the results with the help of the collaborators.

Collaborators & Cooperating advisors: University of Wisconsin Extension Educator Scott Reuss - Oconto County crops and soils horticulture and agriculture specialist will be involved with several important aspects of this project including portions of its development, setup and delivery. Wisconsin State Assembly Representative Elijah Benkhe will assist with project execution and outreach. Elijah is an experienced local farmer who will help with the project as needed and will tap his impressive network of local farmers for the outreach portion to ensure a large audience of local farmers for sharing the results of this proposal.


Farmers with light sandy soils have difficulty meeting the nutrient requirements of heavy feeding crops like pumpkins.  Heavy reliance on chemical fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, fungicides and tillage is common in agriculture and in growing pumpkins.  Although generally effective, many of these conventional farming practices are neither ecologically sensitive nor sustainable.  Repeated over-use of chemical fertilization, tillage and fallow fields can be detrimental to soil structure and impair overall soil health.  Conventional pumpkin crop management strategies for fertility, weed control, powdery mildew and insects often involve using chemicals with known consequences on human health, beneficial pollinator populations, soil microbes and more.  Repeated exposure is causing the weeds, fungi and pests to develop resistance to the chemicals designed to control them.  Alternative, management approaches are available to the conscientious farmer.  Sustainable solutions can range from very low input strategies to more expensive high input strategies, each with their own risks to the farmers bottom line.  Farmers are reluctant to make changes or investments in alternative crop management systems without substantial compelling evidence of their effectiveness and economic viability.  More research is needed on specific pumpkin cultivars and the economics of alternative pumpkin crop production methods on sandy soils in the Midwest region.  

Project Objectives:



This project is designed to identify an economically viable, ecologically responsible pumpkin crop management strategy.  It will evaluate different non-conventional, alternative crop management systems that each attempt to manage pumpkin crops with reduced tillage and chemical use.

Alternative Crop Management Systems

  Low Input Control System Modest Input Farm-Based System High Input Scientific Nutrition System
Overall Strategy: Maximum Efficiency Maximum Sustainability Maximum Production
Fertilization: Follow soil test recommendations Initial amendments + compost Initial amendments + follow the program
Disease Management: Nothing besides seed selection & spacing Compost teas Follow the program
Insect Management: None Chitinase compost Follow the program

Inputs include time, money and physical inputs.  These systems differ in their inputs as well as their approach to fertilization, disease & insect management and overall strategy. 

The low input system is the control program.  It is a low cost, low maintenance, passive system that utilizes a maximum efficiency strategy.  It uses no additional inputs other than the basic soil amendments recommended by soil test and relies on alternative management practices like low-tillage, cover crops, mulches, seed selection, spacing and hand cultivation for success.   

The modest input system is a farm-based system with a strategy of being managed for maximum sustainability.  It relies mainly on farm produced inputs for fertility and incorporates innovative strategies for pest and disease management.   

The high input system is a more expensive system that utilizes a scientific nutrition program designed for pumpkins that is intensively and proactively managed for maximum crop health and production.  It has no other insect or disease management strategies.

The initial project design and setup is as follows:

The site:  6+ acres of idle farmland with flat, well-drained sandy soil.

Year 1:  Prepare 3 acres of land for sustainable production.  Begin farming one of these acres as a (200' x 218') testing site that contains three different - 1/3 acre systems.  The other two acres will be in cover crops in preparation for year 2.  *see attachment diagram for patch location, layout & plot randomization.

Year 2:  Sensibly and sustainably scale up the pumpkin operation to 3 acres.  The other 3 acres will be used for hay and future crop rotations.  

Controls that will remain the same for each system:

Tillage:  Reduced tillage practices such as low-till, strip-till or no till.

Patch Layout:  Three different systems laid out and randomized with help of UW Extension agent.

Seeds:  A variety of powdery mildew resistant cultivars purchased from a reputable seller.

Planting:  Direct seeding, hand sowing ~1250 seeds/acre.

Plant spacing:  10' beds containing 2 rows 5' apart with plants spaced every 4-8'.

Cover Crops:  Spring - Oats, Fall - Winter Rye & Hairy Vetch.

Cover Crop Termination:  Rolled/crimped and or mowed/scythe.

Mulch/weeding:  Cover crop residue + hand weeding/hoeing + straw if needed in year one.   

Soil Prep:  One time only herbicide application (3 acres) followed by cover crops, light strip tillage followed by no-till in year two.

Soil Amendments:  Lime & potassium will be added to 3 acres per soil test recommendations.  Nitrogen amendments will differ for each system.

Animal Control:  Deer fence using fishing line, live traps, mouse traps as needed.


  1. Assess the overall insect and disease pressure on different pumpkin cultivars in Northeast Wisconsin.
  2. Evaluate the effectiveness of alternative strategies for insect and disease management.
  3. Record the crop yield from each system in terms of the number of saleable pumpkins harvested each year.
  4. Provide data on cultivar specific responses to each system.  
  5. Compare yield with time spent and costs to determine the economic viability of each system.  
  6. Share my findings on the economics and outcomes of each alternative management strategy.


Materials and methods:

Our main goal is to experiment and develop the best crop management strategy for small scale pumpkin farming in the Midwest.  

Materials and methods were carried out very closely in accordance with the solutions and objectives section of the original grant proposal with only a few minor modifications.  

Crop management successes in year 1:

Creating permanent 10' beds with 3' ATV paths (for use with ATV with 5'boom sprayer) was a big success.  After a single application of roundup, the beds were tilled and planted with 2 rows (5' apart) of seeds that were spaced every 3-8' depending on variety.  This worked very well for both plants (spacing) and farmer (access).  The pathways remained dead for most of the season and could be mowed to manage any weeds that re-grew and any weeds in the beds were cultivated by hand.  It was a very dry spring, so seeds were watered in well and subsequently watered 2 more times to get them established, after that no other watering was needed.  Initially, any seedlings that didn't come up, or were damaged by birds were re-planted.  Out of 1200 seeds planted, we had 1188 productive plants!  The vines were trained to stay on the beds allowing the ATV to utilize the pathways throughout the entire growing season.  The pathways were also walked by the farmer several times per week for inspection, recording, manual cultivation and vine training.  The farmer was able to keep the 1 acre plot with 19 different cultivars impressively weed free with this method. 

This study compares 3 fertilization strategies in terms of costs and outputs.

  • Low input - control (granular N fertilizer added around plant at vining stage)
  • Moderate input - compost (1 heaping spade full in the hole at planting) with compost tea and other sprays as needed
    • (free) municipal compost was used to offset the amount of compost needed, homemade compost was used for teas.

  • High input - foliar spray (watered in with biologicals, weekly sprays with various biologicals/fertilizers from Advancing EcoAgriculture)
    • halfway through the season the sprayer went out of commission and then the crops ripened prematurely causing the crops to not receive the fully planned dose of fertilizers which could have negatively affected the results for this group. The results of year 2 will help determine this.  

I thought I wanted to see which strategy yielded the most fruit (in number), however, there may have been more value in looking for the biggest avgerage fruit (by weight).

  • The data (see Attachment 1 - Yields and Attachment 3 - Economics) may look like the control group won the first year in terms of yield and economics (Net after labor), however, the oversight mentioned above makes it appear this way when in reality the compost group may have done better by selling nicer larger fruit at a higher price.

Additionally, I wanted to note the differences between cultivars for insect resistance and powdery mildew resistance.  The weekly readings were taken during the weeks of susceptibility to insect and disease and were scored on a 0-2 basis.  Insects ended up not being a problem at all for any cultivar.  For Powdery Mildew, I ended up doing a record scale of 0, 0+, 1-, 1, 1+, 2-, 2 in order to better capture what was occurring here (see Attachment 2 - Disease Resistance ).  Deeper analysis on cultivar specific observations and responses will take place in the final report after the second years data has been recorded.

After a successful harvest, a dry spell ensued that gave the birds plenty of time to work on the winter rye seed before it finally germinated.  Some took, but I did not get the desired coverage or length that I was hoping for going into winter. We will have to wait to see how this impacts year two. Next year this one acre plot will be farmed again with pumpkins but in a no-till manner, and 2 new acres will be opened up and planted the same way as in year 1.  This will give us much more data and will help to confirm observations noted in year 1.  

Research results and discussion:

Summary of Objectives:

Assess the overall insect and disease pressure on different pumpkin cultivars in NE WI.

  • Very low insect pressure on all cultivars in year 1 (possibly due to no recent history of curcubit production)
  • Very high powdery mildew pressure on all cultivars in year 1 (Beginning Aug 1, 2023 see Attachment 2 - Disease Resistance)
    • weekly scores were noted per cultivar from 7.24-9.3.23 (post harvest)
    • most plants were wiped out within 1 month of onset of PM.
    • It's not surprising that PM went rampant as no traditional chemical control methods were utilized.
    • It didn't seem to affect production other than speeding up the ripening process.  

Evaluate effectiveness of alternative strategies for insect and disease control

  • no control was needed for insects in year 1.
  • minimal positive effect of foliar compost tea's to treat PM in year 1.
    • the sprayer was out of commission by the time the compost teas would have been most needed.
    • year 2 will better help determine the actual effectiveness of PM control with alternative methods and functional sprayer.

Record Crop Yield from each system in terms of sell-able pumpkins harvested.

  • Control - 1001
  • Compost - 924
  • Foliar - 770

Provide Data on Cultivar specific response to each system (see Attachment 1 - Yields)

Determine economic viability of each system (see Attachment 3 - Economics)

Share findings through outreach (see Outreach Section)


The overall yield from the 1 acre plot of pumpkins was 2,695 fruit.  That being said, there were several of the smaller cultivars that produced 4-7 fruit per plant which skews the results a bit higher. However the 2023 growing season was an undeniable success (~2,000/acre is good for pumpkins).  Total sales receipts were $5,019 and roughly 2/3 of the pumpkins were sold.  Better marketing and selling out would have improved the following averages:

$5,019 in total sales / 2,695 total fruit grown =  $1.86/fruit

Shared Costs Include:

  • $825 in soil prep, initial amendments, pumpkin seeds and cover crops
  • $570 in labor including initial setup, planting, harvesting, etc.
  • Total of $1395 initial shared costs / 3 ways = $465 shared costs per system.

Variable Costs including Fertilizers and Labor:

  • Control - $0 fertilizer - 3 hrs labor - $45 Total
  • Compost - $227.50 fertilizer - 20 hours labor - $527 total
  • Foliar - $665.50 fertilizer - 30 hours labor - $1115 total

Net after all expenses including Labor 

  • Control - $1354
  • Compost - $729
  • Foliar -  negative ($147)

I was able to determine the cultivar specific average # of fruit/plant which can be useful information.  (see Attachment 1 - Yields)

There were 38 total shared labor hours involved in one acre of pumpkins plus 3 hours for the control, 20 hours for the compost and 30 labor hours for the foliar spray system for a grand total of 91 labor hours at $15/hour for a total of $1365 in Labor 

Year 1 - Observations:

  • Compost system - 924 fruit - noticeably larger plants and biggest & nicest fruit (that sold for the highest $)
  • Control system - 1,001 fruit - made a lot of nice fruit (produced the most fruit, but they weren't as large)
  • Foliar spray system - 770 fruit - made noticeably smaller plants, fewer and smaller fruit

Looking at the # of fruit produced, it looks like the control group was the best, but if we had been measuring the avg weight of fruit produced, or actual revenue collected per system, the compost would have performed better.  This is a shortcoming in data collection method, not in actual performance.

Cultivar specific insect resistance - being the first year the curcubits were grown in this area, insect pressure was almost non-existent.  Only 1 cucumber beetle and 1 squash vine borer moth were spotted the entire year and virtually no appreciable insect damage was noted on any of the cultivars or individual plants. 

There was however some variability in powdery mildew resistance between the cultivars.  Some varieties seemed to tolerate it better than others (see Attachment 2 - Disease Resistance) and some differences were noted between control, compost, and foliar spray groups for certain cultivars.  More information from year 2 will be needed to support any year 1 observations. 

Powdery mildew was first spotted in the beginning of August, and by the end of August all plants had succumbed to the disease.  Harvest was completed by 8/31/23.  Some varieties were affected more than others (see Attachment 2 - Disease Resistance), ultimately since there wasn't much disease control, the powdery mildew seemed to speed up the ripening of the fruit leading to early harvest.

I was worried about the fruit being picked too early, but for the most part we had no issues with the fruit lasting through the season. In fact, I sold a lot of fruit in September and the shelf-life of the fruit greatly exceeded my expectations.  

After year 1 it is looking like the compost system would be my preferred method despite the Attachment 3 - Economics data (bigger nicer fruit that sells for more $), but year 2 will help to confirm that suspicion.  There is still a chance that the foliar spray system could improve it's numbers over year 1, assuming the sprayer if fully functional all year.  

I was hoping to determine the financial cost/benefit for each system in year 2. My plan is to compare initial operating costs according to my pre-determined budget plus labor costs and comparing them to the production and sales numbers over the two year period. This would yield data before determining which is the best system to incorporate after the study is complete and then share that information with other farmers.  

Participation Summary
1 Farmers participating in research

Educational & Outreach Activities

1 Other educational activities: Annual Fall Fest - informal introduction of the research study to the public

Participation Summary:

1 Farmers participated
Education/outreach description:

The original outreach section had plans for a patch tour in July/Aug 2023 that was scheduled at a date and location that made it not possible to attend.  The Oct 2023 outreach activity included an informal introduction of the research study to the public as planned in the original outreach section.  During casual conversations with customers of all ages at the pumpkin patch the I would mention a few specific things in conversation with roughly 50 people during the month of October:

  • These are "research" pumpkins - made possible by the SARE Farmer Rancher Grant Program.
  • These plants and fruit have not been chemically sprayed (other than foliar fertilizers).
  • We are studying economic results of different fertilization strategies - control, compost, foliar
  • We are also studying insect/disease resistance and response per cultivar
  • That next year we plan to do a kids fun fest, giant pumpkin talk and giving away free pumpkins etc.

Overall, the customers were very interested in learning about the chemical-free pumpkins, moderately interested in the grant program, somewhat interested in the fertilization strategies used, and generally un-interested in insect/disease management.  Anyone with kids mentioned that they would definitely be interested in returning for the kids fun fest day next year.  

I was able to grow a 494# pumpkin this year.  We brought it to the local Harvest Fest for display and anyone who wanted a free seed wrote down their contact info and was invited to the carving session back on the farm.  The giant pumpkin carving event brought about 25 people on site where kids and adults came to marvel at the rare sight and claim their free seed while I had their attention, and a chance to talk about pumpkins, the grant and so much more.  This was a teaser event for next year where I plan to have a much larger pumpkin as a backdrop to the "Giant pumpkin" talk and many more guests in attendance for next years kids fun fest.  

Next year I plan to share the same message with the WI giant pumpkin growers association at the annual seminar and or patch tour.  We will also host the Kids fun fest as mentioned in the original outreach section.  

Finally the results will be shared with up to 25 other farmers in our area through a pumpkin growers talk where I will share the results of the study with other growers, we will have a patch tour and a popular guest speaker, lunch will be provided, followed by a presentation of the results of the study.  UW-Extension Agent and Cooperator Scott Reuss will attend and help ensure the results get out to the right people in the area.  

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.