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Ohio pumpkins could be seed of snack food industry

Most pumpkins grown in Ohio — one of the top producers of the gourd in the U.S. — are of the jack-o’-lantern type, but the state also produces pumpkins for pie. Now, Ohio could become famous for its pumpkin seeds.

Ohio State University researchers are working with growers and Innovative Farmers of Ohio to select pumpkin varieties that yield good seeds for roasting, which could lead to added income opportunities for farmers and a new niche market.

Supported by an Ohio Department of Agriculture specialty crop grant, the project began in 2009 with the planting of 15 pumpkin varieties. This year, the five varieties with the best traits for pumpkin seed production were selected and planted at the university’s Western Agricultural Research Station in South Charleston and at two grower sites in the area.

“We harvested the pumpkins and took them to the pilot plant (at the Food Industries Center on the Columbus campus), where the seeds were extracted, cleaned, dried, roasted and seasoned,” said Jim Jasinski, an OSU Extension educator with the Integrated Pest Management Program. “Now we are entering our consumer evaluation phase, where samples will be handed out to see what people think of them.”

Sheryl Barringer, a professor in the Department of Food Science and Technology, said she’s looking at the texture and flavor of seeds from the various pumpkin varieties involved in the study.

“We want a nice, crisp, crunchy texture and a nice, nutty flavor,” she explained. “Then we add different flavorings and see what combinations people like better.”

The researchers have found that some pumpkin varieties are ideal for both pie filling and for roasted seeds. This, Barringer said, is great news because it would allow farmers to sell both flesh and seeds and make twice as much profit — in turn diversifying their operations and making them more financially sustainable.

The researchers have already been in conversations with a purchaser that is interested in buying more locally raised seeds for snack foods. Currently, that purchaser imports a good portion of its pumpkin seeds from abroad.

“So there’s definitely a market and a demand for pumpkin seeds,” Barringer said. “If we can get Ohio farmers to grow some of these pumpkin varieties and extract the seeds instead of throwing them away, there could be quite a big opportunity for profit.”

Once the consumer evaluations are completed, a manual with “everything we’ve learned in this project, from growing and harvesting the pumpkins to seed extraction, roasting and seasoning, will be made available to farmers,” said graduate student Tessa Bowman, who has been involved in the project.

For more information about this project, contact Jasinski at jasinski.4@osu.edu or 937-484-152.

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