A sampling of the squash at The Great Pumpkin Patch. Unfortunately, squash seems to enjoy more popularity as a sport than as a vegetable, farmers say. Squash, such as pumpkins, melons, gourds and zucchini, is a Cucurbitaceae, one of the four main plant families consumed by humans, says Mac Condill, a cucurbit seed developer and general manager of The Great Pumpkin Patch at The 200 Acres Farm, in Arthur, Ill., which grows 300 varieties of cucurbit from more than 30 countries.
“Historically, people have eaten more squash than tomatoes, but squash has fallen out of favor,” says Condill, whose family-run farm welcomed 50,000 visitors during seven weeks last year. “I don’t know why, but squash just isn’t as popular with people nowadays,” Condill says, a sentiment echoed by other squash farmers.
Joel Wilson, the sole operator at Wilson’s Cedar Point Farm, in Nancy, Ky., grows zucchini and summer squash for Walmart. But on a local level, squash isn’t a good seller for him. Much like Condill, Wilson doesn’t know why people don’t want to purchase it.
Despite consumers’ hesitation to purchase the vegetable, squash offers abundant culinary options. “Basically, however you prepare one variety, like acorn, you can prepare any other, like hubbard, buttercup or kabocha,” Condill says. “Almost anything you’d do with a potato will work with squash—you can bake it, mash it, fry, microwave, steam, roast, boil, purée, grill, make pancakes, dice and add to soups, or use squash in casseroles for a boost of nutrition and texture.”
“Squash loves hot, dry weather—period,” Condill says. All varieties are planted after the spring frost-free date. “For us, that’s May 15,” Condill says. “Summer squash takes about six to eight weeks, so, in July, harvest begins. Winter squash is ready in September through November. Summer squash typically [turns] mushy within weeks, but winter squash stores well. It can be cut from the vine and cured [to finish ripening] in the field and then be stored for six months.”
Farmers in cooler, wet areas of the country raise squash with concentrated efforts. Julia McCarthy, of Brown Boar Farm, in East Wells, Vt., says that crops benefit from a red plastic “mulch” layer laid across the soil, with the squash growing up through holes in the plastic. “The plastic allows light to come through and warms the soil,” McCarthy says. “Squash don’t like wet feet, so it’s planted in soil built up about 4 inches, so roots stay drier.”
McCarthy dusts kaolin clay on leaves, protecting them from splashing raindrops that could spread disease. She says squash must be sprayed about once a week, “with less toxic pesticides, such as Dipel,” in order to overcome the inevitable infestation of crop-destroying cucumber beetles and squash beetles that affect her popular delicata squash and sugar pumpkins.
Glenn Cook, an owner-operator at Cider Hill Farm, in Amesbury, Mass., says, “Cucumber beetles show up every year about three weeks after planting.” He uses fabric row covering to physically keep pests—and birds seeking seeds—from tender, young squash. Cook also sprays with Pristine fungicide, which is highly effective against Botrytis (gray mold) and powdery mildew. “Our food is really fresh and really safe, as proven by the random tests performed on our produce by the FDA,” Cook adds. “We spray early but never after fruiting begins. For the best produce, I think the important message is to buy local, from farmers you know.”
These growers report prices ranging from 33 cents to 70 cents a pound for edible squash and say that prices haven’t increased much in years. “Our prices have been steady, despite the fact that squash can be a very inconsistent crop, affected by rain, temperatures, diseases and pests,” Cook says.