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

Project Overview

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


  • Vegetables: cucurbits


  • Crop Production: fertilizers, foliar feeding, varieties and cultivars
  • Farm Business Management: budgets/cost and returns

    Proposal summary:

    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 from proposal:



    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 sell-able 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.
    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.