San Diego Gourd Farm

From: Fred Chambers (regenerative@earthlink.net)
Date: Fri Mar 17 2000 - 10:55:00 EST


Hi SANETEERS!

Seeing the pumpkin talk reminded me of a recent news article about a
neighbor of mine. Food for thought, and it really shows a niche market.

http://www.welburngourdfarm.com

Fred

(Page H-17 )
HOMESCAPE | GARDENING
Fallbrook farmer caters to the crafting set | GOURD HORDE
------------------------------------------------------------------------
Pat Stein
Pat Stein is a free-lance writer.

27-Feb-2000 Sunday

Doug Welburn | Welburn Gourd Farm

FALLBROOK -- March comes in like a lion at Doug Welburn's gourd farm.

That's when hundreds of gourd fanciers from San Diego, around the west and
as far away as Hawaii make their annual pilgrimage to the 75-acre farm
nestled in the austere, rolling terrain between Fallbrook and Temecula.
Their quest is the cream of the new crop, a harvest that tops 150,000 to
200,000 hard-shell gourds.

Welburn specializes in canteen and bottle (Hawaiian Ipu) varieties, and his
25-year-old Welburn Gourd Farm, 12 miles from downtown Fallbrook, is one of
the largest suppliers in the United States.

The farm is open to the public year-round and, depending on the time of
year, visitors see vast fields of gourds growing on vines, thousands of
gourds arranged for drying in windrows as long as a football field, or wire
racks heaped with dried gourds ready for purchase.

Located off a quiet country road in De Luz Canyon, the farm is reached by
short dirt driveway and a wooden bridge that spans the narrow wash cutting
through the front of Welburn's property. A stone's throw from the rustic
ranch house where the family resides, there's a stable for the two horses
that Welburn's wife, Sue, rides through the wild terrain surrounding the
farm.

The ranch's original livestock population included goats, chickens, pigs,
sheep and cows, but now that the Welburns' two daughters are no longer
raising animals as 4-H Club projects, there's just Oscar, the family dog,
and the two horses.

Birds twitter in the boughs of the California live oaks that shelter the
wire racks of gourds from sunburn, and visitors browsing through the large
display hear other critters scampering through the chaparral that grows
right up to the edge of the cleared farmland.

The dried gourds heaped in the racks are not beautiful in their natural
state. But the homely members of the squash family will be transformed into
everything from birdhouses to Christmas ornaments by the gourd crafters who
flock to the farm at harvest time.

"For thousands of years," Welburn says, "people from almost every culture
around the world have decorated gourds and made them into musical
instruments and containers."

Growing passion

Like pumpkins, melons, cucumbers and other members of the cucurbit
botanical family, gourds grow on sprawling vines that can reach 25 to 50
feet in length, according to Welburn.

Each vine will produce from one to 10 gourds, depending on the size of the
gourd. Some of Welburn's gourds grow to 36 inches in diameter, but most are
in the 13-inch or smaller range.

They come in a wide variety of quixotic shapes. Some have "waists," some
are as round as cannonballs, some resemble large pears, some have long
slender necks, and others look like penguins or swans.

Hard-shell gourds have grown without human assistance in temperate and
tropical climates around the globe since antiquity. But for a professional
gourd farmer such as Welburn, raising gourds on a large scale for the
gourd-craft community is both labor-intensive and scientific.

"Gourds require a lot more care than you might think," Welburn said.

He started growing gourds on 24 acres he purchased for his family home
nearly 25 years ago. A building contractor at the time, he was looking to
plant a cash crop on the land surrounding the family's rambling ranch house
that wouldn't require such critical timing as tomatoes, which must be
harvested at a the peak of ripeness to ensure marketability.

"I was building houses, so I couldn't quit a construction project to
harvest a crop," Welburn says.

A neighbor who had successfully grown gourds encouraged Welburn to try his
hand at gourd culture.

At first gourd farming was merely a sideline to his contracting business.

"When I bought the ranch 25 years ago it was my dream to find something I
could grow and make a living," Welburn says. "I tried pumpkins, elephant
garlic, alfalfa and row crops before I started raising gourds."

When it looked as if they were the viable cash crop he was seeking, Welburn
gradually phased out his building business to devote full time to gourd
farming. The operation has expanded from the land Welburn owns on De Luz
Murrieta Road to 50 acres of leased land nearby.

He admits he has developed quite a passion for the vegetable that has been
cultivated for thousands of years for uses ranging from water dippers to
religious icons. With pipe in hand or mouth, clad in jeans, a plaid shirt
and a hat to protect him from the sun, Welburn clearly enjoys walking from
his house to the gourd fields that stretch almost as far as the eye can see
during the peak summer growing season.

When he surveys the fields, he sees a lot of manual labor.

"Ninety-nine percent of people have no idea how much work it is to grow
gourds," he says.

Frost to frost

When he got into it full-time, Welburn discovered that there's more to
growing quality gourds than meets the eye.

"Gourds need a lot of water, fertilizer and space," he said.

Welburn propagates his own seed and farms organically, using composted
materials from the ranch and chicken manure to enrich the soil.

Almost all of the work on the farm is done by hand. Seeds are planted by
hand in March and gourds are cut from the vines by hand in the fall. Even
the irrigation system, which is crucial to a bountiful crop, is manually
installed at planting time and removed by hand when the fields are ready to
be tilled.

About the only mechanized aspects of the operation are the tractor that is
used to plow before planting and the truck that hauls the trailers full of
cured gourds to the wire racks for selling.

Welburn employs three field workers year-round and adds three to five more
hands during the labor-intensive harvest and planting seasons.

The growing season is "from frost to frost." It usually begins in March,
after the previous season's crop has been harvested, and ends around
Thanksgiving.

"Usually we plant in March. Around Thanksgiving, after the vines have died,
we cut the gourds from the vines and place them in windrows to cure," he
explained.

Baked by sun and wind, the shells harden and seeds on the inside dry. The
"curing" process takes about four months.

At the end of February or beginning of March, depending on the weather, the
gourds are loaded into a trailer and hauled to the wire rack display area
adjacent to Welburn's home. Here gourd fanciers are free to paw through
piles of gourds at their leisure.

Although gourd artists are picky about their selections, the purchase
process is quite casual. Gourds are priced according to size. Minis
measuring 2 to 4 inches in diameter sell for 75 cents apiece while
13-inchers go for $10 and gourds 14 inches fetch higher prices.

With about 100,000 gourds for sale, it's no surprise that Welburn leaves
the sizing up to customers. He provides a board with holes of various sizes
in it for shoppers to use to determine size and price of each gourd.

Seed crop

Not all of the gourds Welburn raises are for sale. He uses many to harvest
seed for the next season's crop. From more than a quarter of a century of
experimentation, Welburn has learned how to propagate seeds to control the
shape, size and shell thickness of his gourds.

Welburn starts the vines from seed harvested from previous crops in late
February, planting the seeds in compost and nurturing them in a greenhouse
near his home. It takes seven to 10 days for the seeds to germinate and
when the sprouts are sturdy, he plants them on the land plowed and enriched
with compost and chicken manure.

The drip irrigation system that delivers needed water to the growing vines
must be removed between crops to permit tilling of soil and is re-installed
when seedlings are in the ground.

Gourds are very thirsty throughout the growing season, according to
Welburn, so adequate irrigation is critical. At maturity, gourds -- like
squash, melons and other cucurbit cousins -- are 90 percent to 95 percent
water.

During the growing season, Welburn battles pests such as cucumber beetles
and aphids, not to mention powdery mildew. Since he farms organically, he
marshals an army of beneficial insects such as ladybugs instead of
chemicals and hopes for warm, dry days to ward off mildew.

Although the Del Luz Canyon climate is about as close to ideal for growing
gourds as you can get, nature is not always kind and one season Welburn
lost half of his crop due to an early frost.

For the seed crop, he hand-pollinates the gourd flowers. When mass
planting, he keeps the various types of gourds in separate fields to
minimize spontaneous cross-pollination that results in a crop of
unpredictable shapes and sizes.

Gourd vines produce large, white, night-blooming flowers after about six
weeks. Each vine sprouts both male and female blossoms and the female
blossoms must be pollinated if the plant is to bear fruit. Thanks to
Welburn's organic farming methods, there are plenty of flying insects to
handle pollination chores naturally.

Weather is one variable Welburn can't control. If there's a frost during
the growing season the gourds will shrivel. Too much sun can cause
defoliation and the gourds, unprotected by leaves, will collapse on their
exposed sides. Too much sun after the gourds are cured can make shells
brittle and unworkable for artists who want to carve or wood-burn the
shells.

And then there are rodents.

"Rodents attack the gourds for their seeds," Welburn says.

Thick skin needed

But even gourds flawed by critter bites or sunburn appeal to crafters who
see artistic possibilities in the imperfections.

"It depends on what you're looking for and what you want to make the gourd
into," Welburn says, adding that hard-shell gourds are a different genus
from the brightly colored soft-shell ornamental gourds so popular in autumn
decorations.

For gourd artists, the shell must be thick and sturdy enough to withstand
carving, wood-burning and other forms of ornamentation. If the shells are
too thin and delicate, Welburn says, the gourds crack in crafters' hands.

For Hawaiians and other Pacific Islanders who use gourds as rattles in
native dances, gourds must be lightweight and also properly shaped for
grasping.

"Hawaiians are my best customers," Welburn said. "They use gourds as
rattles in their dances, also to make nose flutes, drums and other
percussion instruments. They have everyday and special-occasion gourds."

Welburn and his wife, Sue, have an extensive collection of gourd art
ranging from fanciful animal figures to intricately carved containers.

When Sue isn't riding her horse, busy with her role as the mother of two
daughters or helping Doug with the gourd business, she tries her hand at
gourd crafts.

She also helps organize the farm's annual gourd art festival, held June 24
and 25 this year. The festival draws gourd fanciers from all over the
United States and features a full spectrum of gourd art, gourd craft
classes and entertainment.

Although the farm itself is rustic, the Welburns are up to speed when it
comes to marketing. In a small home office cluttered with books about
gourds and pieces of gourd art, they have a modest computer system that
allows them to service customers who can't come to the farm in person via
e-mail or snail mail.

Located at 40787 De Luz Murrieta Road, Fallbrook, the farm is open from 10
a.m. to 4 p.m. Friday and Saturday and by appointment Monday-Thursday. Call
(760) 728-4271 or e-mail: info@welburngourdfarm.com.

The farm's Web site, which presents detailed information on upcoming and
past events, a price list, catalog and mail-order forms, is
http://www.welburngourdfarm.com.

The farm can be reached from I-15. Take the Rancho California exit and head
west. Bear left as Rancho California Road segues into De Luz Road. De Luz
becomes De Luz Murrieta Road after crossing from Riverside County into San
Diego County. The farm is about six miles from the county line on the left
side of the road.

------------------------------------------------------------------------
Copyright San Diego Union-Tribune Publishing Co.

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