By: Sarah Kocher, St. Cloud Times
MILACA — Though her greenhouse is full of them, a Milaca grower's pumpkins will not meet a toothy-smiled end on front porches this October.
Instead, their rotund, mottled green shells will be split and Rachel Sannerud will scoop the seeds out of the yellow-orange flesh. These seeds are the end goal of a two-year grant project: growing pumpkins for their hulless seeds, called pepitas.
Sannerud has committed to growing varieties of these pumpkins as a specialty crop for two years after receiving an approximately $11,000 Sustainable Agriculture Demonstration Grant from the Minnesota Department of Agriculture.
"It's basically like a science experiment that you grow on farm," Sannerud said.
Pepitas do not have the white, harder pith surrounding the pumpkin seed. They're slightly smaller, and come out of the pumpkin green. The seeds are a health food and can be marketed directly to consumers through farmers markets and also wholesale to places like restaurants and bakeries, Sannerud said.
The grant allows her to explore growing hulless seed pumpkins without some of the financial risk. It's a learning experience, and the results of the experiment — what varieties work well, best practices for growing, pressure from disease and pests, good harvesting and processing methods — are shared with other farmers in a project report.
Sannerud owns and runs Pluck Flower Farm, a small Milaca farm where bright blooms from zinnias and celosia were still growing Thursday near the pumpkin patch she's established for the experiment.
Hulless seed pumpkins have been grown in other countries and other parts of the U.S., Sannerud said, but haven't really been explored as a specialty crop in Minnesota.
"For me and a lot of other small farmers, we want to know how it does here," Sannerud said.
Sannerud bought the farm from three nearby brothers who live near the land she now cultivates. One passes along agricultural reading material to her — including a John Deere magazine with a feature article on hulless seed pumpkins. In the piece, Sannerud said, the seeds were being used for their oil.
"What I took from it was that these are the same pumpkins that make the trendy seeds that go in people's granola," she said. "And I want to see if we can grow that."
The growing timeline also works well for her farm; the pumpkins need planting a little later than most of her flowers, and harvest time comes when her fresh flower work is winding down for the season, giving her more time to harvest and process them.
They've been fun to grow, Sannerud said, but she doesn't have the information she needs yet to determine whether she'll plant these pumpkins past the two-year grant stint. To make that decision, she needs to discover some of the same things other farmers will want to know, too: How much time it takes to process the seeds, and what the yield is like.
"If it all works out on paper, I'm absolutely interested," she said.
She tested two growing conditions on her pumpkin plot. One half was not mulched, and the other was mulched with straw before the pumpkins were planted. She also grew three varieties of hulless seed pumpkins, which varied in the time to fruit maturation and size. One was a dual-purpose variety supposed to produce pepitas as well as flesh good for eating.
Next year she'll repeat the growing process with modifications based on how this one went. For instance, her unmulched plot was supposed to be mechanically weeded, but the plants were too close together to fit the tractor she uses to weed. She had to weed the plot by hand. Once was enough.
"I don't think I need to do that another year," she said, gesturing to the weeds in the unmulched plot. She may space them out more the second time around.
Sannerud also plans to share her findings with other farmers on a field day next year.
Sprout (a food hub in Little Falls connecting area farmers with both markets and direct consumers) is a collaborator on the project, Sannerud said, and she'll use their commercial kitchen to process the pepitas. After harvest, the pumpkins need to cure in her greenhouse. Then the pumpkins will move to Sprout, where she will cut them open, scoop out the seeds, wash and dehydrate them and package them.
Grant projects are meant to explore sustainable agriculture practices and systems with the potential to increase profit, efficiency and personal satisfaction, a press release from the Minnesota Department of Agriculture said.
For Sannerud, the grants are a chance for farmers to do something cool on their farms, and to help other farms become profitable — especially smaller farms, like hers.
Sannerud chooses what she does with her farm — what she grows and how she uses her land — very carefully, because it's largely her doing the work, she said. Any information that comes out of grants like these can make a really big difference, especially for younger and beginning farmers who already look for information like this on the internet.
"That's the thing that excites me most is knowing that, if this goes well, it means it doesn't just go well for my farm," Sannerud said. "It means it probably goes well for a lot of other small farms like me, and that there's more small farms like me. And that means so much to me."
Sannerud is one of eight farmers to receive a Sustainable Agriculture Demonstration Grant in 2020.