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Treasure Valley could become pumpkin seed powerhouse

Rick and Robyn Purdum have grown pumpkins for jack-o-lanterns on their farm before, but have now set aside about 20 acres to test the viability of a smaller sized pumpkin used for seed harvesting. Photo courtesy of the Snake River Economic Development Alliance.

Rick and Robyn Purdum have grown pumpkins for jack-o-lanterns on their farm before, but have now set aside about 20 acres to test the viability of a smaller sized pumpkin used for seed harvesting. Photo courtesy of the Snake River Economic Development Alliance.

The Snake River Economic Development Alliance is working to make the Treasure Valley one of the nation’s leading pumpkin seed producers.

Kit Kamo, executive director of the alliance, is working with six farmers between Boise and Ontario, Ore. to grow 30 acres of pumpkins as a trial.

The goal is to have more farmers include the crop in their seasonal rotations and to produce up to 5 million pounds of pumpkin seeds annually if the trial, now in its third year, determines that pumpkins can grow at a profitable rate. Kamo would then work to attract pumpkin seed processors to the area.

The Snake River region now produces 25 percent of the U.S. supply of onions, as well as potatoes, corn, wheat, barley, alfalfa, grass hay, beans, sugar beets, and peppers. It also produces seed crops such as turnip, onion, lettuce, kale, alfalfa, clover, corn, and radish.

Naked, or hull-less, pumpkin seeds are now grown in western Oregon, northern California, New York, and a few other areas. But there aren’t enough grown to keep up with demand for domestic seeds, Kamo said. She said the Snake River region is a good fit because of its rich soil, longer growing season and irrigation water.

Kit Kamo

Kit Kamo

“We also have a large number of farmers who are innovative and are trying to push the industry forward,” Kamo said. She’s working with a researcher at the University of New Hampshire to get Idaho and Oregon farmers the information they need for success with pumpkin seeds.

Rick and Robyn Purdum will harvest 18 acres of pumpkin seeds on their New Plymouth farm in mid-October and are in the process of buying a dryer from California. They might have a buyer for the seeds lined up already, said Robyn Purdum.

The two started growing pumpkins for seed two years ago at Kamo’s suggestion. They now grow bell peppers, sugar beets, onion seed, carrot seed, wheat, and dry beans on their 450-acre farm.

“We’re always interested in trying new crops, and looking for something that is different,” Robyn Purdum said.

Kamo got the idea for the venture at a natural food conference three years ago in Oregon, where she learned from seed processors including Skout from  Portland, Ore. and SuperSeedz from North Haven, Conn. that natural grocers such as Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods were trying to find domestic pumpkin seeds instead of seeds from China, where most pumpkin seeds are now grown.

The 2015 pumpkin harvest on the Rick and Robyn Purdum farm in New Plymouth. Photo courtesy of Snake River Economic Development Alliance.

The 2015 pumpkin harvest on the Rick and Robyn Purdum farm in New Plymouth. Photo courtesy of Snake River Economic Development Alliance.

“We know we can grow most pumpkin varieties here, but we do not know if it will be profitable and if we can build or retrofit for the necessary harvesting and processing equipment,” Kamo said. “If we are able to grow and process them, then it would make sense to recruit the end users to our area! Why ship them to other states for seasoning and roasting?”

The buyers said they could use about 5 million pounds of seeds, which Kamo said farmers in her region could produce.

Farmers in Idaho don’t yet have the proper seed-gathering equipment for pumpkin seeds, but the USDA awarded the Snake River Economic Development Alliance a $91,000 grant in October to buy equipment.

“Pumpkin seed harvesting isn’t very big in the United States yet, so while there are a few farmers who do it and have built equipment most of them are secretive about how they did it,” Kamo said. “Getting equipment has been hard because it isn’t something we have been able to go to the store and order, but we have purchased some old equipment and are in the process of rebuilding it.”

Two university extensions are helping with the pumpkin trial. Idaho State University's extension in Parma and Oregon State University's extension in Ontario. Photo courtesy of the Snake River Economic Development Alliance.

Two university extensions are helping with the pumpkin trial, Idaho State University’s extension in Parma and Oregon State University’s extension in Ontario. Photo courtesy of the Snake River Economic Development Alliance.

The equipment smashes the pumpkins and collects the seeds while leaving the pumpkin meat on the field to enrich the soil. The alliance has purchased a seed-washing machine.

The pumpkins that the trial farmers are growing are smaller than traditional jack-o-lantern pumpkins and carry more seeds. The seeds grow without a shell.

“At this time we do not have actual cost of production, so it remains to be seen if the pumpkins will be a profitable crop,” Kamo said. “At best, the market price less cost of production will have to be very close to other rotational crops currently grown by our farmers. Otherwise, there will be no reason to plant them.”

About Benton Alexander Smith

Benton Alexander Smith is a reporter for the Idaho Business Review, covering the Idaho Legislature, new business, technology and financial services.