Pumpkins are a venerable Halloween tradition, but if you pull your pumpkin promotions after Oct. 31, you could be missing out.
As innovative, millennial-driven eating trends proliferate, consumers are going beyond using the gourds to commemorate All Hallows’ Eve and using them to enhance their Thanksgiving menus, says grower/author/entrepreneur Sarah Frey.
And Frey should know.
The New York Times referred to the founder and CEO of Frey Farms in Keenes, Ill., as “the undisputed pumpkin queen of America.”
“There is a big opportunity for retailers to lengthen the selling season for pumpkins,” Frey says. “Retailers sell themselves short and sell their customers short if they wrap it all up and have all of their pumpkins down by Halloween.”
Sales of cooking pumpkins actually increase during the weeks following Halloween as consumers kick off their Thanksgiving shopping, she says.
“They’re looking for these beautiful heirloom-variety pumpkins and cooking pumpkins to make a unique culinary dish – a conversation platter -- for Thanksgiving,” she says.
Frey is author of “For the Love of Pumpkins: A Visual Guide to Fall Decorating with Pumpkins and Ornamentals,” and Frey Farms is one of the largest – if not the largest – pumpkin growers in the country.
The company produces those big, orange jack-o-lanterns, decorative pumpkins and cooking pumpkins.
She is particularly excited about cooking pumpkins, which she markets as the Pumpkins of the World and Autumn Couleur lines.
Frey got her start in produce at age 8 selling melons out of the back of a truck with her mother.
At 18, she bought the family farm out of foreclosure, and now she runs the operation with her four older brothers.
The family owns about 15,000 acres in seven states and also produces watermelons, cantaloupes, sweet corn, fall ornamentals and hard squash.
Pumpkins account for less than 25% of the product the company grows, but they’re Frey’s favorite.
After searching myriad seed catalogs, she started sourcing heirloom pumpkin seeds from around the world about 15 years ago.
She discovered varieties like Jarrahdale from Australia and marina di Chioggias from Italy – both thick, meaty, blue-green selections.
“In many parts of the world, pumpkin is consumed almost daily,” Frey says. “In Australia, pumpkin is as common as bread is in America.”
The problem, as she sees it, is that most U.S. consumers don’t know that the decorative pumpkins they buy every fall are edible.
But that’s starting to change.
“Cooking with fresh pumpkins is definitely a hot trend,” she says, due in part to the influence of Instagram and other social media.
“People like to look for unique items and showcase them on their Instagram profile,” she says.
She encourages retailers to jump on the trend and promote pumpkins as culinary fare as well as decorations.
“The (decorating) trend is not going to go away,” she says. “We just need to do a better job of educating and letting consumers know that these pumpkins are actually meant to cook and to eat.”
Pumpkins of the World cooking pumpkins weigh a mere 5- to 8 pounds, while those in the Autumn Couleur line might weigh in at 20 to 25 pounds.
“We curated those (Pumpkins of the World) seeds purposely to make sure they were wonderful cooking pumpkins and are a manageable size,” Frey says. “Not everybody wants to cook up a 20-pound pumpkin and process all of that meat.”
Jack-o-lanterns are a fun, holiday staple and easier to carve than cooking pumpkins because of their hollow insides, she says. But produce buyers looking for cooking pumpkins should search for thicker, meatier pumpkins that have a smaller seed cavity.
There are hundreds of varieties, shapes, sizes, colors and textures of cooking pumpkins, and each has its own distinct flavor.
The Jarrahdale, for example, has a sweet, smooth taste, she says, while marina di Chioggia has more of a nutty flavor.
Although some of Frey Farms pumpkins are sent to a major producer of canned pumpkin, Frey says there’s an “incredible difference” in the flavor profile and texture of canned product compared to fresh.
“It’s like canned vegetables compared to fresh vegetables,” she says.
Frey Farms starts shipping its fall pumpkins the last week of August.
Besides regular pumpkins, the company sells painted pumpkins as an in-and-out item and pumpkin tattoo kits – food-safe transfers that enable consumers to “paint” a pumpkin in a minute.
She recommends that pumpkins be merchandised in high-graphic bins that tell the story of a farm or explain where seeds are sourced or what the pumpkins are used for.
“There is nothing more impactful than a big, colorful display of fresh pumpkins,” she says.
She also suggests that retailers save their customers a daytrip to a pumpkin patch by creating a “full-on fall look” with straw bales and other enhancements to make a pumpkin patch in the supermarket.
“You want to try to bring that pumpkin patch experience into your store,” she says. “That’s the win in merchandising pumpkins.”
The company ships more than 5 million pumpkins a year, she says.
Frey Farms was the first to pumpkin shipper to bring variety pumpkins to the retail market, she says. Now the company does business with the top 25 retailers.
And Frey is in the process of expanding her firm’s product line by adding Sarah’s Kitchen line of consumer packaged goods that will put to good use fruit that doesn’t meet visual standards for retail sale by turning it into purees, soup bases, roasting seeds, pumpkin butter and even pumpkin flour to be sold in the center of the store.
“We’re passionate about pumpkins,” she says.