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A win-win: U-pick pumpkin farms recycle urban leaves

NEW BRUNSWICK, NJAmericans love pumpkins. The growing popularity of rural fall festivals, grade school farm tours, and "u-pick" pumpkin farms has resulted in an increase in consumer demand for pumpkins throughout the country. A critical challenge for pumpkin farmers promoting entertainment agriculture, or "agritourism", is maintaining fields that are weed-free, attractive, and safe for consumers. To keep up with the increasing popularity of pick-your-own pumpkin operations, farmers are constantly seeking ways to produce marketable pumpkins while maintaining u-pick fields that are enticing for consumers, even during inclement autumn weather.

Using leaf mulch collected from urban areas may help improve quality and field conditions of u-pick pumpkin operations while providing a cost-effective method to recycle leaves. During 2005 and 2006, researchers Christian Wyenandt, Joseph R. Heckman, and Nancy Maxwell from the Department of Plant Biology and Pathology at the Rutgers New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station, conducted experiments comparing different production systems on pumpkin yield and fruit quality. According the researchers, "the studies revealed that applying municipal leaves to the soil surface exhibited a marked advantage over bare soil in producing clean pumpkin fruit. In both years, the percentage of clean fruit at harvest was higher in both leaf mulch production systems compared with bare soil."

Cities and towns seeking a cost-effective method to dispose of collected leaves can also benefit from the study. In New Jersey alone, five million cubic yards of leaves are collected each year by local municipalities for composting or use on farms. State regulations prohibit disposing of leaves in landfills or locally burning leaves. A 1994 study of New Jersey municipalities and farm operators indicated that on-farm mulching had the potential to reduce the cost of municipal leaf management while providing organic matter to the soil and monetary incentives to the farmers through fees (averaging $3.00 per yard) paid by municipalities.

The scientists noted the benefits of the research to both farmers and taxpayers, stating; "Small farm operators near urban areas can apply autumn leaves collected from municipal shade trees to help maintain attractive fields, maintain suitable soil conditions for consumers, improve the cleanliness of u-pick pumpkins, and improve overall soil health with the addition of organic matter to the soil." And municipalities seeking environmentally safe and cost-effective methods of leaf disposal can work with u-pick pumpkin operators to create solutions that work for producers, local governments, and consumers.


Contact: Michael W. Neff
American Society for Horticultural Science

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