Bert Bouwman doesn't consider himself a trendsetter. But when he planted 15,000 pumpkin seeds at his Brooklyn Park farm this year, he became part of a fledgling national campaign to add a new product for Breast Cancer Awareness Month -- the pink pumpkin.
"There's a lot of pumpkin farmers out there, but not a lot of pink ones," said Bouwman, standing in a field of light pink pumpkins Friday. "This was a combination of a new product, a new opportunity, and most important, a way to support a cause that affects nearly every family."
After years of blitzing shopping malls, grocery stores and restaurants, the breast cancer charity movement has landed in farmers' fields. At least three Minnesota vegetable growers, and about 50 nationally, are launching the unusual campaign organized by a new foundation prodding farmers to think pink.
The board chairman of the aptly named Pink Pumpkin Patch Foundation (pinkpumpkinpatch.org) is Don Goodwin, president of Golden Sun Marketing in Minnetrista.
The fruits of the foundation's labor can be found at some of Minnesota's best-known grocery stores as well as smaller grocers across the metro area. They're among about 900 retailers nationally that have picked up the product during its trial season, said Goodwin.
"It's going surprisingly well," said Gunars Sprenger-Otto, produce manager at Fresh Seasons Markets in Victoria and Minnetonka, which sold about 80 pumpkins over the past two weeks. Sales picked up after he set up a pink poster announcing, "American Pumpkin Growers have donated a portion of Porcelain Doll Proceeds to Cancer Research."
The "porcelain doll" is the name of the new seed. The poster comes courtesy of the foundation, which has begun marketing the product in earnest.
How it began
The pumpkin fundraiser sheds light on how some other pink products wind up on store shelves every October, which is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. A Colorado pumpkin breeder discovered a pink pumpkin in his field about five years ago, said Bouwman, and spent several years developing the seed.
The breeder approached Goodwin, a marketing veteran who had previously worked with Target produce. They decided to associate the product with breast cancer awareness, and to use an October roll-out to coincide with breast cancer events and Halloween.
Farmers who bought the seeds signed a contract pledging to give 25 cents from every pink pumpkin to breast cancer research. Their donations are funneled through the small foundation, which has a five-person board of directors.
The foundation will evaluate its earnings later this year and solicit grant applications from community groups, said Goodwin, who like most Minnesotans knows friends who have battled breast cancer.
"It's hard not to find an adult who hasn't been affected by this terrible disease," he said.
Learning to grow pink
Bouwman and several of his children were harvesting hundreds of pumpkins on Friday as winds whipped the fields of his farm, which also put on the Twin Cities Harvest Festival and Maze.
Shivering children clipped the pumpkins from the vines and Bouwman transported large boxes of the picked fruit with a front-end loader.
Bouwman grows other unusually colored pumpkins, such as white and peach. He's been pleasantly surprised by the demand for the pink, which aren't ideal for carving jack-o-lanterns, but make for attractive fall displays.
"I'm shipping them to other states, too," he said. "Missouri wanted two semi loads. I told them they could have one."
Since the pink pumpkins have not been grown in Minnesota before, Bouwman is hyper-alert to such weather stresses as lack of water and cold temperatures. But so far, so good, he said.
The folks at Bergmann's Greenhouse and Gardens in Stillwater weren't quite so lucky. Their pink pumpkin patch near Marine on St. Croix attracted some unwanted admirers.
"The deer loved them," said Peggy Neurer, a greenhouse worker. "They're very sweet."
So sweet that the deer essentially wiped out the entire crop, she said. That said, Bergmann's is likely to make a donation to breast cancer research anyway, she said.
Jerry Untiedt, of Untiedt's Vegetable Farms based in Waverly, who's selling pumpkins at a half-dozen pumpkin lots around the Twin Cities, has had better luck. Like Bouwman, he thought he'd check them out this first year, see how they fared. He grew a couple thousand this season.
Untiedt said he was drawn both to the cause and to the foundation running the pink pumpkin campaign, which has no paid staff or office overhead. He expects he'll grow even more pink pumpkins next year.
Goodwin is keeping his fingers crossed that other growers feel the same. It helps that the pumpkins have been picked up by some high-profile grocers such as Cub Foods, Lunds/Byerly's and SuperValu. Goodwin and his board will sit down later this year and decide how to proceed in 2013.
"Right now it's encouraging," Goodwin said.
Jean Hopfensperger • 612-673-4511