Jack of All Trades: Pumpkins are Cash Crop for Lakeland Youth

Pumpkin_Jack prize

Jack Oliver with a blue-ribbon winner. Photo courtesy of Oliver family.

Lakeland resident Jack Oliver is not your typical businessman, but he has a lifetime of experience growing and selling prize-winning pumpkins. Of course, he is also 12 years old and a 6th grader at Briarcrest Christian School.

Ten years ago, Jack’s older brother, Carter, who was then seven years old, wanted a new bike. When his father, Don Oliver, saw that pumpkins at the Agricenter sold for as high as $10 apiece, he decided that they could plant pumpkins on the family farm near Paris, Tennessee. Carter could sell the pumpkins and earn the money for his bicycle.

A farm boy himself, Don enlisted the assistance of the University of Tennessee Agriculture Extension. By the end of October, the enterprise had sold about 300 pumpkins and Carter had his new bike.

After a couple of years tagging along (interpret: working for free), Jack  was ready for a cut of the action. According to Jack, his big brother wasn’t happy at first at having to split the profits. “I had to really work for it,” Jack said (Mom Kate nods in agreement here).

Pumpkin_tractor

Plowing the pumpkin patch. Photo courtesy of Oliver family.

And there is more work than Jack originally thought.  The boys spend a weekend in June—usually around Father’s Day—planting an acre plot with pumpkins and gourd seeds, and then return to plow, pull weeds, and spray for bugs.

The boys have also learned to make a budget for seed and bug spray and, like many a farmer before them, that Mother Nature doesn’t always cooperate. This spring’s wet weather delayed planting and the pumpkins weren’t ready to enter in the Delta Fair.

In the past years, the Oliver  boys have won awards at the Delta Fair for the biggest pumpkins,  best pumpkins and best gourds. In fact, dad Don says that when they didn’t enter anything, a representative from the fair called to check on them.

In addition to winning ribbons, their participation in the Fair was a great marketing tool last year—the brothers received their largest order yet—60 pumpkins—from a  Delta Fairgoer.

Carter Oliver preparing a display of pumpkins for sale. Photo courtesy of Oliver family.

Carter Oliver preparing a display of pumpkins for sale. Photo courtesy of Oliver family.

Last year, the Oliver boys also expanded their retail efforts beyond word of mouth and their front yard. They had a booth one Saturday to sell their pumpkins and decorative gourds at the Arlington Farmers’ Market, which was very successful. This October, they expect to sell 400 pumpkins and over 200 gourds.

Since whoever makes the sale keeps the profit, and Carter, now 17 years old and a Briarcrest junior, is busy with sports and other activities, Jack has stepped up and done more of the selling.

“I probably like the selling part the best. I didn’t expect all the stages—weeds, fertilizer, replanting. I thought it would just be planting and harvesting.”

Jack claims that he saves the money he earns from this and another business he has making and selling duct tape wallets (although Jack suspects that his parents  take a cut off the top, his dad denies it). Jack also freely volunteers that his brother is not a saver: “Carter blows his money on stuff for his truck.”

Don sees the value of the experience beyond the money the boys earn. “We hope that we are teaching something in the process. Some years are bad years and we don’t have as many pumpkins those years. But most years have been pretty good.”

An unlikely entrepreneur, perhaps, but Jack is certainly an enthusiastic one.  “Most of my friends don’t expect me to have my own business. But I’ll carry it on with my children.” And next year, he’s thinking about adding watermelon.

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