How PA farmers compete to get their pumpkins on Philly shelves

‘Any box store if you can’t supply their huge demand,’ said one farmer, ‘they won’t even look at you.’

Pumpkins at Whole Foods South Street

Pumpkins at Whole Foods South Street

Danya Henninger

Chambersburg farmer Keith Benedict knows the pumpkins have to be big, a little bigger than the size of a basketball. They have to be just the right shade of orange, too. Otherwise, his Central Pennsylvania crop might not land on the displays of stores in Philadelphia and other big markets in the state.

“If you fall down and some pumpkins are in they don’t like,” Benedict said, “they’ll generally start buying from somebody else who’s doing a better job.”

According to the Pennsylvania Vegetable Marketing & Research Program, 21 farms in Pennsylvania feature more than 10 acres of pumpkins. These farms, like Benedict’s, are the source of pumpkins for most big grocers and retailers in Philly. Dozens more Pa. farmers have fewer than 10 acres dedicated to the Halloween crop.

But despite the relatively small number of big-volume growers, getting your pumpkins into stores in Philly or other big cities in Pennsylvania can be competitive.

The Whole Foods on South Street gets its pumpkins from Davino’s & Sons farm in Clarksburg, N.J., plus other small farms. ACME gets some of its supply from Benedict and the rest from Zehner Farms in Northeast Pennsylvania and Fitzgerald Farms in Arlington, Va. ShopRite representatives said they get their pumpkins from various farms in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, but declined to provide names.

For pumpkin farmers, deals with major stores can be a huge asset — if they can be scored.

“Any box store, if you can’t supply their huge demand,” said Adam Davino of Davino’s & Sons, “they won’t even look at you.”

How much do these stores need? Benedict supplies ACME with about 31,000 pumpkins. In the rest of Pennsylvania he supplies Giant with about 100,000 and Aldi with 60,000. Doug Zehner, of Zehner Farms, said he supplies about 100,000 for ACME.

“You’ll find that the pumpkins we sell to them are very, very orange,” said Zehner, crediting the higher elevation climate of his farm in Northern Pa.

The stores you see in Philadelphia with pumpkin displays out front are likely not even concerned about making a profit. Benedict suggested many stores sell pumpkins at a loss as a draw to get people into the store to buy other items.

He got his start in 1992, buying a neighboring farm and turning his milk and dairy into a much larger operation. Benedict first had about 10 acres for pumpkins and now has about 150. The connection to Giant began with the help of two cousins who had an in. Other connections developed from there and eventually Benedict Farms landed deals with ACME and Aldi.

Davino has a much smaller farm than Benedict. His pumpkin business basically consists of supplying to Whole Foods and local lawn and garden centers. For the local lawn and garden centers, a farmer can simply stop by to try to strike a deal to get his or her pumpkins sold. The bigger businesses don’t come nearly as easily. Many of Davino’s connections were passed down from his grandfather. Zehner Farms has had the ACME account going back at least 25 years.

For just about any Pennsylvania farm, two stores will almost always be out of reach: Home Depot and Walmart. Those big chains tend to get their pumpkins from Bottomley in North Carolina, a mega farm that supplies pumpkins and Christmas trees all over.

“If I ever went to Home Depot,” Davino said, “if I could even get a sales person on the phone — they’d probably laugh.”

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