There's a good reason most farmers don't even think of growing pumpkins in south Georgia. It always has been almost impossible to do. But a new pumpkin variety could soon change these growers' outlook.

“Most of the pumpkins traditionally grown commercially in Georgia are Cucurbita pepo types,” says George Boyhan, a University of Georgia horticulturist in Statesboro, Ga. “They're in the same species as summer squash. And they're highly susceptible to viruses and other foliar diseases.”

UGA horticulturists have been developing a new pumpkin from plants in another species, Cucurbita moschata. It's the same species as butternut squash, Boyhan says.

“We selected a squash that has a good jack-o'-lantern appearance, in terms of shape and color,” he says. “It has a much higher level of disease resistance, particularly to viral diseases.”

The new pumpkin got its start from seeds that UGA horticulturists Gerard Krewer and Marco Fonseca and Union County Extension agent Tim Jennings collected in the wilds of Brazil. They were there in 1996 and 1999 on UGA exchange trips to help small farmers.

Since 1996, Boyhan, Krewer and UGA horticulturist Darbie Granberry have been making improved selections for adaptation to Georgia conditions.

The result, Boyhan said, is a pumpkin farmers will finally be able to grow in south Georgia.

In the research plots this year, the difference between conventional pumpkins and the new variety was striking. “The other plants absolutely melted” from foliar diseases, Boyhan says. The new plants, though, were thriving.

The new variety is one farmers could grow in north Georgia, too, where the state's small pumpkin crop is grown entirely now. “But the whole purpose of this variety is to give south Georgia growers a pumpkin they can grow, too,” Boyhan says.

Boyhan expects to have seed available to a limited number of growers for the 2005 season. Sufficient supplies for virtually all growers should be ready in 2006.

Farmers who are already growing produce for you-pick, roadside and other local markets have long struggled to grow pumpkins, says Jeff Cook, a UGA Extension Service agent in Tattnall County.

“There's a lot of interest in pumpkins among our you-pick growers,” Cook says. “They've been asking us, When are we going to get a pumpkin with more resistance?”

In Tattnall County's 18-grower cooperative, “Farm Fresh Tattnall,” several farmers already grow pumpkins every year, Cook says. But they struggle.

“It's very labor-intensive,” Cook says. “You have to get out there and spray every few days, and you never know whether a disease might wipe you out. Those guys are very interested in a pumpkin with disease resistance.”