Saturday, January 19, 2013

Farm Bulletin: Pumpkin Seed Project, Year 3

Meticulous attention to detail is the hallmark of the conscientious farmer, from machinery to soil to seed to harvest. Patience is also a requirement, as contributor Anthony Boutard of Ayers Creek Farm outlines here.

Three years ago, we planted a row of naked pumpkin seeds as a trial. The hulless or naked pumpkin seed originated in Styria, a region of Austria. Pumpkin seeds are roasted and pressed for their oil, a characteristic food of the region. In the late 19th century, an observant Styrian farmer found a pumpkin where the tough hull was reduced to papery covering. Apparently, Austria is not considered a sexy land of origin in the world of seed catalogs, so some seed companies list them as unique Japanese pumpkins. Echos of calling prunes from Germany "Italian Prunes."

The mice of Ayers Creek Farm quickly volunteered as tasters, eating every last seed and leaving naught but a hole. Obviously, the mice had decided pumpkin seeds were tasty, so we hastily set out a few more as seedlings and harvested six or seven fruits. Upon harvest, we agreed that mice have a good palate.

We repeated the trial in 2011 and discovered the seed companies have done a poor job of managing the seed. Most of the fruits had various undesirable characteristics, including a tendency to have tough, split or bitter seeds. More than half the pumpkins had to be discarded, their seeds inedible. Bulk naked pumpkin seed costs about $80 per pound—more in the 1/4 pound lots we usually buy—and should produce a reliable crop. Unfortunately, we are encountering similar seed quality problems for other crops.

Last spring we ordered seed from several sources and picked through thousands of seeds, finding just 100 with the characteristics we wanted, discarding the rest. Cost was about $1.00 per seed, plus labor. We planted them and all but two of the plants produced good seeds. Ten of the pumpkins yielded beautiful plump, dark seeds easy to separate from the fruit pulp. We have reserved these for this year's planting. When we harvest the pumpkins in the autumn, we will again carefully select the fruits for seed.

Our goal is to produce a pumpkin that produces flavorful, high quality seeds that are easily removed by hand from the fruit's cavity. It will take a couple more years before we iron out all of the genetic kinks, but we are making progress. This year, we have the flavor nailed, even if the seed removal remained tedious. These Austrian pumpkin seeds are delicious raw or roasted in a dry skillet until they pop. Wonderful addition to soups and salads. Supply is limited.

Photo of cut pumpkin at top by Anthony Boutard. Photo at left from Johnny's Selected Seeds.

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