Koltiska’s pumpkin patch provides holiday fun, diversification in their cattle operationWritten by Rebecca Colnar Mott
The Koltiska Pumpkin Patch, now in its eighth year of being open to the public, began several years before when Gary Koltiska decided to plant pumpkins simply because he was fond of the orange orbs.
“My grandfather homesteaded the land in this area. We’ve always had a place in Clearmont to run cattle, but once we got irrigated farmland here, I plowed a field up and said I wanted to grow pumpkins. The first time we planted pumpkin seeds we did it by hand, one seed at a time, on 4.5 acres. It took us about two weeks,” says Koltiska.
They got smart fast, traveling to Colorado to buy a vegetable planter that could be pulled behind a tractor, thus eliminating the arduous task of hand planting.
The Koltiskas were told that pumpkins wouldn’t grow in Wyoming, so Gary was determined to give it his best shot. He was extremely pleased when the pumpkins began to grow on the vine.
For a few years, the Koltiskas didn’t think of selling the produce, but turned the cows loose on them.
“Cows really love pumpkins,” the Sheridan rancher says with a smile. “Then Vicki asked me what I was going to do with all these pumpkins, and we came up with the idea of selling them to local grocery stores.”
Finding a market
“Carl’s IGA said they’d take some, and we had a good run with them for several years,” says Koltiska. “SuperValue in Billings also began to sell our pumpkins. The first few years of selling them commercially was labor intensive as we had to hand pick then load 50,000 pounds of pumpkin by hand onto the semis. We produced enough pumpkins to fill two semis.”
They later began loading the pumpkins into large cardboard boxes on pallets, which could more easily be loaded and shipped.
All good things must come to an end, however, and when Carl’s closed its doors, the Koltiskas lost a customer.
“We talked to Wal-Mart, but they wanted a guaranteed 250 acres of pumpkins. We usually planted between four and eight acres, and they wanted all of the pumpkins to look the same,” he said.
That’s when Vicki decided that the community might benefit from a pick-your-own patch, and the rest is history. Koltiska disagrees with the “sameness” policy that grocery stores dictate – every pumpkin must look alike.
“People actually want pumpkins of all different shapes, sizes and colors,” he says.
Today, even though Koltiska says he doesn’t really keep count, he estimates more than 1,200 people, including school kids, come each year to find the perfect pumpkin.
For those interested in how pumpkin farming works, at the Koltiskas, the soil is cultivated and seeds are planted in mid-May. Once the irrigation water is sent down from the Big Horn Mountains, the crop is irrigated. Since they don’t use herbicides on the pumpkins, the patch isn’t a tidy row of leaves, but a high mass of leaves.
“We do cultivate a couple of times during the growing season before the vines get too big,” says Koltiska. He explains that pumpkins need to be in a four-year rotation. “We’ll plant pumpkins one year, the next year that ground will be summer fallow, then we’ll plant a wheat crop, then the following year will be summer fallow and finally pumpkins again.”
Because of the rotation system, he adds that it’s a good thing their farm has plenty of land to move the patch around.
This year’s crop
This year, Koltiska said the drought has made a different in the crop.
“We’ve seen a lot of male flowers, but not so many female ones, so that’s made a difference in the yield,” he says.
The pumpkins are ready for harvest between late September and early October. This year, the season is running from Sept. 17 to Oct. 7.
“Once it freezes, you lose your crop,” he says. “It really is a very short time frame when you can pick good pumpkins.”
Once the visitors have selected their pumpkins and ride back in the wagon, they pay for their pumpkins. Pumpkins are priced at six dollars for the largest pumpkin, and based on a graduated scale. After they make their purchases, visitors are invited to come into the large metal shop and enjoy juice, lemonade or water and some tasty cookies. Long tables are creatively decorated with Halloween figures. At one table, people can guess how much a display of several pumpkins weighs.
“We have a lot of school groups come out to pick pumpkins and learn about agriculture,” explains Koltiska.
Each year, they pick a school to come out and pick pumpkins free of charge. This year, Tongue River Schools were selected.
“It kind of helps when your grandparents own the patch,” says Koltiska, referring to granddaughter Sadie who lives in Dayton and lends a helping hand during the pumpkin harvest.
Koltiska says one of the pleasures of growing the pumpkins is the people they meet.
“There have been a few times when it’s been rainy and muddy, and people are still come out and have fun,” he comments. “It’s not just for kids. We have some ladies in their mid-fifties come out this year, and they had a great time. We also had some 80-year-olds from Alaska came out, and they just had a ball.”
Koltiska sees his pumpkin endeavor as a great stress reliever and says he enjoys being out in Mother Nature.
“After all these years of growing pumpkins, I still love walking through them,” Koltiska mentions. “Every pumpkin is different. I’m certainly going to keep on doing this.”