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Georgia Farmers Get 'Jack-o'-Lantern Crop' Ready

Pumpkins make great pies. But that's not why most people buy them.

"Most people get them for decorations," said Johnny Burt, whose family farm includes 52 acres of pumpkins in the north Georgia mountains. Burt's Farm, which also hosts tours for school children and others, is a half-mile from Amicalola Falls State Park.

"Halloween is the second-biggest decorating season of the year, behind Christmas," Burt said. And pumpkins are always a key part of Halloween and other fall decorations.

Georgia farmers have been adding acres of pumpkins in the past few years. "We probably have 600 to 800 acres in the state this year," said Terry Kelley, a horticulturist with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.

That's a sizable increase from just 350 acres three years ago. But it's still a tiny crop in Georgia agriculture. The state's cotton crop alone covers 1.44 million acres.

Most of the Georgia pumpkin crop doesn't make it far from home. "We may do a little shipping," Kelley said. "But mostly our pumpkins are grown for roadside stands."

Georgia farmers grow all types of pumpkins, he said. They range from giants that can weigh several hundred pounds to tiny ornamental types you can hide in your hand.

Burt said his most popular buys nearly all become jack-o'- lanterns. "Our biggest seller? It's a tossup between the giant pumpkins and the traditional jack-o'- lanterns," he said.

Normal jack-o'-lantern types sell for $4 to $10 each, he said. The giant pumpkins, each weighing 250 to 300 pounds, go for $60.

"You'd be surprised how many people want those big ones," he said. "Most people want them to make big jack-o'-lanterns. I think a lot of times it's a kind of neighborhood project."

The giants are the toughest part of the hardest work in growing pumpkins: The harvest, which started in early September and will continue through October, can be grueling.

"If you're not willing to put out a lot of hard work, you don't want to grow pumpkins," said Burt, who has grown them for 25 years. "The harvest is the hardest. It takes a toll on you."

It's not the only hard part, though. With this year's crop, farmers fought a continuous battle with aphids.

"We had a horrible year for aphids," Burt said. "Statewide, we may have more acres of pumpkins this year, but we probably won't have more pumpkins. Our production was down, and it was due more to aphids than anything else."

Kelley said Georgia's humid climate forces farmers to keep a constant check on potential disease problems, too. "It's not an easy crop to grow," he said.

(Dan Rahn is a news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)

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