Herb Griffin was raised on row crops, so when he broached the subject of planting pumpkins on the family farm to his father, the idea was met with raised eyebrows.
Twenty-two years ago, commercial pumpkin production east of Goldsboro, N.C., was non-existent. His father, William Griffin, was a big row-crop farmer-politician. Active on the state and national levels, William Griffin was a mover and shaker in agriculture. His two sons listened when he spoke. (He’ll be inducted posthumously into the North Carolina Agriculture Hall of Fall early in 2004). William Griffin later told his son it was a good move to expand to pumpkins.
Nowadays, pumpkins are an extra-income cash flow on many farms.
It didn’t take Griffin long to realize that he had hit on pent-up demand for pumpkins when he went to market with the few that he raised "in a mud hole out back."
Over the years he has expanded to 25 acres of pumpkins and developed marketing skills that would allow him to teach in any business school. He also hosts groups of school children to give them a taste of a "working farm."
His father’s approval in a speech to teachers on a hayride made everything worthwhile.
Griffin also grows and markets 25 acres of what the folks in Down East North Carolina refer to as "Bogue Sound Watermelons."
He and his brother also grow tobacco, wheat, soybeans, sweet corn and Indian corn in Jones County, N.C.
Griffin got the idea to plant pumpkins from Minton Small, the Jones County Extension agent at the time. "He said there aren’t any pumpkins east of Goldsboro," Griffin recalls.
At the first harvest 22 years ago, Griffin sold $50 or $60 worth of pumpkins over the span of two weekends. "I thought I was doing something!" he recalls.
"The second year some folks asked, ‘Do you have any to sell in volume, say 40 or 50?’" Griffin remembers. He also started making treks to Kill Devil Hills on the Outer Banks of North Carolina to sell pumpkins.
He got hooked up with a chain of convenience stores and later added a Piggly Wiggly. "I stopped by Wal-Mart and got hooked up with them.
"You have to get hooked up ahead of time," Griffin says. "I have at least half of the crop sold before I plant anything."
Wal-Mart continues to be Griffin’s biggest customer for watermelons and pumpkins. He also supplies watermelons and pumpkins to six military bases, supermarket chain Food Lion, and IGA stores.
The key, Griffin constantly reminds himself, is quality. "I remember meeting a head buyer one time and him telling me, ‘you may be able to sell junk on the side of the road, but if you sell it to a grocery store, you better have quality.’"
Quality starts in the field.
The watermelons follow on tobacco land that has been fumigated. The practice sterilizes the soil and discourages diseases. To help prevent sun scald on the watermelons, Griffin lets the weeds grow and plants Indian corn that grows up to 12-feet tall in between the watermelons. Rye planted early in the season between the watermelons keeps cool air from hitting the young plants and helps Griffin get an earlier start on the season.
A cage on the edge of the watermelon field houses boxes of honeybees. They’re a necessity, despite Griffin being allergic to their stings. "On a large scale, you better have honeybees and good workers. I’ve been blessed with good workers over the years."
Using no-till, Griffin harvests cleaner pumpkins.
With the pumpkins, he has to spray fungicides on a weekly basis to ward off diseases. As Hurricane Isabel approached earlier this year, Griffin clipped the pumpkins and put them in windrows for harvest after the storm passed. The move saved the pumpkins from filling up with water and rotting on the vine.
Each fall, Griffin opens up the farm to tours of school-aged children. "They get to come to a real farm when they come here," Griffin says. Griffin hops on his tractor and takes off to the back of the expansive property, with his dog riding with him. The kids follow closely on wagons filled with hay.
He slows down along the dirt road in order to let the dog lunge toward the trees and strip the leaves off a limb. "Kids just love that," he grins. "When they send us pictures they have drawn thanking us for the tour, they’ll always include the dog in the picture. We enjoy looking at the thank you cards we get from the kids."
Griffin plants crops for the abundant wildlife on the farm. "I tell them to keep their eyes open because they may see a flock of turkey."
Each child gets a small pumpkin to take home.
Griffin also sells ornamental Indian corn, besides pumpkins of all sizes in the fall.
Recalling the conversation he had with his late father, Griffin says, "You have to be diversified these days.
"I think my father saw the importance of diversification," Griffin says. "One of the proudest moments came when my father told a group of teachers that he was proud of what I had become."