When it comes to pumpkins, at least the kind of pumpkin that ends up being carved into a Jack-O-Lantern, appearance matters.
If you have a pumpkin thats real clean and has a nice stem, it makes a difference when it comes to selling that pumpkin, is the way Dr. Greg Hoyt puts it.
Hoyt is a soil scientist and North Carolina Cooperative Extension specialist in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. Hes been experimenting with a different way of growing pumpkins that could save North Carolina pumpkins growers money and produce prettier pumpkins.
For several years, Hoyt says, pumpkin growers in the Midwest have been producing pumpkins using a technique known as no-till farming or conservation tillage. This year Hoyt grew no-till pumpkins at four North Carolina locations in an effort to demonstrate that the technique can be adapted to the Southeast.
No-till is not new, and a number of crops are already grown using no-till techniques. Farmers who practice no-till dont till, or plow, their soil as much as conventional farmers do.
No-till farming typically involves growing some sort of cover crop over the winter rather than leaving land fallow. In the spring, the cover crop is either harvested or killed with herbicide. It either case, a residue of plant material remains on the ground, and the farmer plants into this residue rather than plowing the field, then planting.
Advocates of no-till say leaving organic residue on the ground reduces soil erosion. The residue also conserves moisture, so crops tend to be better able to withstand dry periods. The practice saves farmers money because they usually make fewer trips through their fields with tractors. That saves fuel and wear and tear on the machines. Advocates also claim no-till soil is healthier, that it contains more earthworms and other beneficial organisms.
Weed control can be a problem with no-till farming, however. Farmers typically rely on herbicides to control weeds, and no-till can be problematic if effective herbicides arent available.
Hoyt grew pumpkins this year at agricultural research stations in Fletcher, Waynesville and Laurel Springs in western North Carolina and near Salisbury in the Piedmont. Hoyt is stationed at the Mountain Horticultural Research and Extension Center in Fletcher.
Hoyt says all his pumpkin patches did well, even the one at Salisbury during a drought year, when the Piedmont was the driest area of the state. A number of different cover crops, including small grains, were also grown at the various sites last winter in an effort to see if any worked well or didnt work with pumpkins.
No-till may be a particularly good practice with pumpkins, Hoyt points out, because it tends to keep the pumpkins clean. Pumpkins grown conventionally lie on bare ground as they grow. They get dirty and the portion of the pumpkin in contact with the soil can develop what Hoyt calls a warty appearance.
No-till pumpkins, on the other hand, lie atop a bed of plant residue. The pumpkins tend to be cleaner and prettier.
The biggest drawback to growing no-till pumpkins in North Carolina is equipment, according to Hoyt. He explains that a special planter is needed to plant seeds through the crop residue on the ground. Most farmers who grow pumpkins dont have no-till planters.
And North Carolina pumpkin patches tend to be small and dont generate a great deal of income, so growers may not feel they can afford to invest in specialized equipment.
But Hoyt does not think the lack of no-till planters is an insurmountable problem for North Carolina farmers. He says its possible to adapt planters used for other crops to plant no-till pumpkins. And Hoyt points out that in some counties, the state will share the cost of purchasing no-till planters with farmers.
see a reason why growers cant adapt no-till here in the Southeast,
says the scientist.