By Toni W. Riley
When Dr. Ellie Gripshover accepted a position with the Logan County Animal Clinic in 2010, she and husband Paul knew they wanted a farm. They had lived in Iowa where Ellie started her veterinary practice and wanted a farm there, but, as Paul said, “land never came up for sale.”
As they settled into Logan County, the couple began their search for small farms. One caught their eye on Woodward Road in the Chandler’s Chapel area, but they weren’t sold on the house. Eventually, the property won them over, and the Gripshovers knew they had found what they were looking for.
They also knew they would have to supplement their income to pay the mortgage on the 70 acres. They talked about several different things, but the property had no fence, so that eliminated cattle. They fell back on an enterprise that had helped Ellie and her siblings have spending money and pay for college and cars as teenagers — pumpkins.
“Our real estate agent, Tim Haley, thought we were nuts,” Paul laughed. “He told us we couldn’t raise pumpkins here.”
Haley had to eat those words — or maybe just pumpkin pie — because he now serves as the auctioneer for the Bluegrass Market between Fairview and Elkton where the Gripshovers sell their pumpkins.
The couple said growing pumpkins was a logical choice for their family. The crop wouldn’t require as much equipment as most row crops or even cattle, and Ellie already had experience raising them. The couple grew up in Northern Kentucky, within sight of Cincinnati, and Ellie along with her sister and brother raised 6 to 10 acres of jack-o’-lanterns along the Ohio River and sold them directly to customers at the Boone County Farmer’s Market.
Now five years and two children later, the Gripshovers are still raising pumpkins. Jack-o’-lantern pumpkins are a very small part of their 6-acre patch. Paul said the first year they raised jack-o’-lanterns and had an almost total crop loss.
“Jacks” are a more northern crop even though they are raised as a southern variety. While the jacks worked for Ellie in Boone County, the pumpkins didn’t tolerate the heat this far south.
The secret to the Gripshovers success with pumpkins has been diversity. Knowing that jack-o’-lanterns are risky, the couple planted a quarter acre of Indian corn that first year and, since then, they’ve grown decorative and specialty pumpkins.
Ellie said the specialties have become the mainstay of their operation.
“Magazines, such as “Better Homes and Garden” (and) “Southern Living,” and websites, such as Pinterest, show fall decorations with different kinds of pumpkins and that has increased demand,” she said.
She went on to explain that specialty pumpkins can be a little misshapen and still sell well. Now the Gripshovers plant 10 to 12 varieties of pumpkins and gourds, with names such as mini angel wings, Jardale, Cinderella’s Flat White and Long Island Cheese.
Ellie begins their production year in January by researching what pumpkin seed varieties to purchase. Her method is simple.
“We try a variety for two years,” Ellie explained. “If it doesn’t grow or sell well, it’s off our list.”
Seed varieties can range from a few dollars a pound to $80 per one-fourth pound for really hot sellers, such as goonies.
In the spring, the Gripshovers roll bale the wheat they planted in the fall as a cover crop and no-till the pumpkin seed through the wheat stubble. In May and June, an old corn planter with modified plates plants the pumpkin seeds in their fields.
The pumpkins are fairly low maintenance through the summer, but the weeds have to be controlled and Paul regularly sprays for insects, such as squash bugs, cut worms, vine borers and aphids.
Another important element to their crop production is pollination.
“We never had to worry about pollination when we was raising pumpkins as teens; there were wild bees and farmers close by with hives,” Ellie recalled. However, in Logan County, the Gripshovers needed bees.
After contacting a local beekeeper who was going out of business, Paul got a deal on the hives and equipment. He and their 4-year-old son Oliver are now beekeepers, an endeavor Ellie admits she was hesitant about. They now have four hives and collect 50 pounds of honey per hive, which they offer for sale.
As the days begin to shorten, the Gripshovers begin to gear up for harvest. They hire local teenagers who come after school to pick pumpkins and load farm wagons.
The pumpkins are sold at the Bluegrass Market and at their own farm at 641 Woodward Road, Auburn, from mid-September through early October.
Pumpkins have enabled the Gripshovers to live a lifestyle that is important to them: raising their children on a farm and working together.
As customers gathered on the first night of farm sales, Ellie and Paul laughed about the late nights they had put in that week. Paul asked Ellie if she wanted to live “in town,” and they both laughed and said, “No way.”
By Toni W. Riley