Halloween has become big business in the UK.
In terms of consumer spending, this seasonal event has become one of the biggest dates in the calendar, only eclipsed by Christmas and Easter.
There is nothing more synonymous with Halloween than a pumpkin and there are now an estimated 15m pumpkins grown in the UK each year.
A growing number of these are being sold by farmers retailing direct to the public, offering pick-your-own pumpkin ‘experiences’ for families which are proving popular and profitable.
Introducing such a pumpkin enterprise has certainly added a new dimension to Scottish grower Russell Calder’s arable farming business.
He describes it as a business that has brought new stresses – last year because of the wet weather and this year because of the challenge of meeting Covid-19 restrictions – but one that also brings lots of fun.
Russell and his wife Lucy, who farm about 1,000 acres at Kilduff Farm, near Haddington in East Lothian, run ‘The Patch’ attracting up to 8,000 visitors each year, who buy an estimated 6,000 pumpkins.
The initial idea behind the business came from the couple’s desire to get his two young daughters and son more involved with the farm and learning about rural life.
‘Being a working arable farm there is not a lot they can really get hands-on with, so we wanted to find a diversification that enabled them to get more involved and they could work on throughout the year,’ explains Russell.
They started with a trial plot to get a feel for what was involved in growing pumpkins, opening the gates to the public for the first time in October 2018.
Since then The Patch’s popularity has exploded, attracting customers from as far away as Newcastle, Glasgow, Aberdeenshire and Ayr, and now being featured on lists of the best places to pick pumpkins in Scotland.
This year, because of Covid-19, the farm has introduced a ticketing system to enable them to control numbers and is taking appropriate steps to ensure that everything is kept clean and Covid-safe.
Customers get a two-hour slot to come and pick out their pumpkin and enjoy the other attractions on the site, which include scarecrows, photo opportunities with Instagram boards and a bale maze. It’s a collection of activities that together offersa ‘fun day out’ for families.
The bulk of the 2ha they grow each year are pumpkins for Halloween, with customers getting to pick from six different varieties ranging in size from ‘munchkin’ ones through to giant specimens.
‘They are cut and sat on the ground, so people can search through to find one they like. We have weigh stations dotted around for customers to weigh their own pumpkins, which adds an educational element they seem to really enjoy.’
Orange pumpkins may be what most people see as the traditional Halloween pumpkin, but customers are increasingly seeking something a bit different, says Russell.
‘Being in Scotland, our pumpkins don’t always fully ripen, so they have nice green patterns on them and some of them can be quite dark green. People really like that because you don’t get that in a supermarket.’
The business also grows 13 different varieties of culinary squashes, which it sells to vegetable wholesalers and local restaurants, including leading Scottish chefs Nick Nairn and Tom Kitchin.
‘There is this whole range of squashes that are eaten across the world, but not here in Britain. We are really keen to encourage more people to use them in their cooking.’
Russell admits that getting ready to open up in the face of Covid-19 has been challenging, but the reaction from customers has been incredibly positive.
‘So many people are saying to us how nice it is to come and forget Covid-19 for a couple of hours and to enjoy some family time.
‘Despite the challenges, we also really enjoy it. It has brought a whole different side into our farming business, as dealing with the public is not something you generally do as an arable farmer.
‘Having the opportunity for one-to-one interaction with the public, being able to explain where food comes from and how pumpkins are grown is really good.’
Find out more about ‘The Patch’ at Kilduff Farm.