Ask any small business adviser how to succeed and they’ll all tell you the same thing -- you need a carve a niche in the market.
And that’s exactly what Queensland farmers Belinda Williams and her mum Pam Stackelroth have done.
For the past 14 years, the pair have devoted their 48.5-hectare Bowen farm to growing varieties of pumpkins to be carved into jack-o-lanterns for Halloween celebrations -- and demand is rising.
This year the mum and daughter farming duo grew 500 tonnes of pumpkins, affectionately known on Stackelroth Farms as “Spooky Petes”, and supply Coles, Woolworths and Costco stores all over Australia as well as produce markets in Sydney, Brisbane, South Australia, Melbourne and Western Australia.
“We were growing capsicums, watermelons and rockmelons -- and one of the reps from one of the seed companies we used to deal with asked us to do a bit of a trial with the Halloween pumpkins,” Williams said.
“We thought, ‘anything's worth a try’ and over the years we’ve done hundreds of trials with different varieties of watermelon and capsicums so we thought ‘why not put the pumpkin seeds in and see what comes of it?’
“And on the marketing side, we could see potential in it -- being that Aussies tend to follow American trends somewhat.
“We started with a couple of hundred seeds and maybe one tonne of pumpkins and that was about 14 years ago.
“Demand grew quite quickly for them, more so in the last seven or so years. This year we grew 500 tonnes.”
Spooky Petes are a secret variety, developed over many years to grow in Australian conditions.
They grow in two sizes -- the larger 4kg to 8kg pumpkins and mini, grapefruit-sized ones.
“We’ve done a lot of research and development to get the right type -- the first crop we put in didn’t like the warmer weather here,” Williams said.
“So one of the seed reps went to America and went to the breeders to find the perfect variety for our climate. We put in a lot of years to find the right ones and we still do trials every year.
“We’re growing in opposite seasons to America -- we’re growing these here going into summer and they’re growing into winter, so it’s a bit tricky to find the right variety.”
While it was a bit of a gamble to invest in what could have been a passing fad, it’s definitely paid off for the farming family, with Stackelroth Farms the country’s major supplier of Halloween pumpkins.
“If you buy a pumpkin for Halloween, chances are it’s come from here,” Williams said.
Williams said the business was run solely by her and her mum, they do call on other family members -- as well as some backpackers -- in the lead-up to Halloween.
Even Williams’ partner Michelle O'Regan takes leave from her job as sergeant at the Bowen Police Station to help with the harvest.
“When it comes to Halloween my step-daughter is usually on holidays so she helps and our foster daughter does too,” Williams said.
“And now we’ve got their boyfriends coming in and helping too. My godson comes from Townsville to help as well.”
The family know how important it is to give back to the community so they donate a bin of Spooky Petes to the Brisbane Children’s Hospital for their annual Halloween party, and also donate their low-grade pumpkins to drought-stricken farms to help feed the cattle.
Williams said that while humans can also eat the Spooky Petes, she recommends a little research.
“You can eat them, but as Aussie we don’t know how to eat them like the Americans do,” she said.
“They use them for their pumpkin pie. My mum always makes a pumpkin pie every Halloween time, but you wouldn’t have one like you would eat a Jap pumpkin or a Butternut -- you don’t roast them, they’re much more stringy, specifically for carving.”
And do they decorate the farm for Halloween with a mountain of jack-o-lanterns?
“I get a bit sick of seeing them!” Williams said.
“But we always have a Halloween party every year.”