By SUSAN WELCH
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
LOUISIANA, Mo. -- Jack Diffey grows 91 types of pumpkins, squash and gourds -- everything from common carvers to unusual varieties like One Too Many, which resembles a bloodshot eyeball.
Diffey won't even attempt to pronounce the names of some, like the French Galeaux D'Eysine, a salmon-colored squash covered with bumps that look like peanut shells. Instead, he jabs his finger at a line in a binder where he keeps a list of his crops.
"I have a hard enough time with English," he joked.
Diffey, 58, hasn't always grown pumpkins or even farmed. He grew up in Crestwood and worked for years for a local nursery. In 1982, he and his family moved onto 10 acres at 14016 Highway NN in Pike County, about three miles from Louisiana.
"When we bought this place up here, I thought it was important to be a producer, not just a consumer," he said.
Initially, Diffey raised pigs and sold them, but he started growing pumpkins in 1991, when he said his wife, Debbie, got a little carried away with fall decorating.
"She was buying a lot of things, and I said, ‘I can grow that,' " Diffey said.
That first year, Diffey grew white and orange pumpkins. He fed the extras to the pigs or gave them away, but people started to offer to pay for them. When the pig market got less profitable, Diffey switched to squash and bought an additional 80 acres.
Early on, it was difficult to find varieties, Diffey said, but the unusual ones have gotten more popular. Now he peruses catalogs and the Internet and talks to other enthusiasts before he decides what to plant.
"If we get to talking about pumpkins, it's hard to get me to stop sometimes," he said.
Some of Diffey's best sellers are ones with unusual shapes and colors, like the Triamble, also called a Shamrock, a green squash that has lobes like a three-leaf clover. Others include Cotton Candy, a white pumpkin, and Australian Butter, a pink squash that looks like a pumpkin.
Even though he's been cultivating his plants for more than two decades, Diffey still buys most of his seed because plants cross-pollinate, and he wants to make sure he gets the variety he wants.
Diffey starts farming in mid-June. He hand-plants the seeds so that he gets the spacing just right for the different varieties, which have various vine lengths. The seeds need water initially, but once the plants vine out, they can get through even a drought pretty well, he said.
This year, Diffey used an irrigation system that consisted of about four miles of drip tape, enough for every row of the six acres he planted.
He said the timing of the pumpkin season coincides with the slow season in his job as a crop consultant, so that makes working full time a little more manageable.
"But once I start planting, I'm probably in the field every day for a couple of hours until harvest," he said. "It's pretty much nonstop between working and trying to do the pumpkin thing."
Diffey's family helps him with his pumpkin stand, and his daughter-in-law Leah sells the produce at a farmers market in St. Charles on Saturdays. They're also available at Frenchtown Country Market on North Second Street in St. Charles, but Diffey also keeps a box at the edge of his property so people can shop and pay if no one's around.
Some of Diffey's harvest is cultivated just for eating, like his butternut, acorn and spaghetti squash. Some, such as the Lunch Lady gourds, with a warty appearance, are purely ornamental. Others have names with a fairy tale flare, like pumpkins named Cinderella and Magic Wand.
Diffey's small squash, gourds and pumpkins sell for three for $1. An average size carver goes for $3, and his highest priced pumpkins usually are $10. The exception this year was a 50-pound white pumpkin, which sold for about $20.
Diffey said he's never gotten into the competitive side of pumpkin growing.
"I guess maybe it's because I'm just so busy, and the big ones are a lot of work," he said.
The prices, the unique variety and tradition keeps people coming back, he said.
"One Saturday, I had somebody from Hannibal, Pittsfield (Ill.), St. Charles and Kansas City stop by all within an hour," he said. "They make it part of their annual fall sightseeing trip."
Diffey said because of the repeat customers, he feels pressured to produce a good crop. Many of the customers come year after year and take photos of their children posed next to a height chart he put up that says "How tall this fall?"
"I get excited to see the kids come out, because I've never seen a kid who did not like pumpkins," he said.
Sharon Thomas of Louisiana said she's been coming to Diffey's for 10 years, and the challenge is not what to buy but how many.
"If you can't find a pumpkin here, it's not made," she said.
Pam Brown and Jackie Onnen, both of Louisiana, stopped to shop for a presentation they were doing for their herb club. They left with more than a trunkload of pumpkins for $49.
"I've never seen anyone with this many kinds of pumpkins anywhere," Onnen said.
Diffey beamed a little more with each compliment. Comments like theirs keep him planting year after year, testing out new varieties.
"Some people want a perfect pumpkin, and others see some of these different-looking squash and just love them," Diffey said. "Everybody's got their own taste, and I try to keep everybody happy."