Some defective squash seeds sprouted a successful niche business for the Ropp family in Oregon’s Willamette Valley.
In the late 1940s, samples from a 500-pound lot of squash seeds grown by A.M. Ropp refused to germinate, rendering it unsalable to a major seed buyer.
Instead, he shipped the seeds to a food company that roasted and sold them to consumers.
Decades later, the Ropp family’s company, Autumn Seed in Albany, Ore., is entirely devoted to producing squash seed for the confectionery market.
The company has also developed automated systems of harvesting and processing the seeds.
Harvesting, which once required splitting the squash with a machete and scooping out the innards manually, is now conducted by specialty machinery the Ropp family has refined over time.
“It’s more trial-and-error than anything else,” said Howard Ropp, the son of A.M. Ropp.
Autumn Seed contracts with dozens of farmers to grow squash on about 2,300 acres across the Willamette Valley.
Once the crop is ready for harvest in late September, however, the company uses its own equipment to pile the bulbous fruits into neat rows and later mechanically break them open to gather the seeds.
With the help of their longtime machinery fabricator, Marlon Kauffman, the Ropps have created a windrower that separates the squash from other plant material as it pushes the crop into rows.
“You’re knocking them off the vines and laying them down on a carpet of vines,” said Greg Ropp, A.M. Ropp’s grandson.
The next step is directing the company’s nine specialized self-propelled combines to scoop up squash and split them open.
The mushy entrails then pass through a revolving perforated drum — the seeds are collected after falling through the holes while the rest of the squash is ejected from the back.
“They take the seeds and leave the meat laying on the ground,” Greg Ropp said.
The seeds are washed and dried at the company’s facility in Albany, then shipped to a food manufacturer that roasts, packages and markets them under the Bigs brand.
Although they’re sold as pumpkin seeds — and the fruit looks similar to a pumpkin — the functional difference between Autumn Seeds’ squash and the type used for Jack O’Lanterns is “night and day,” said Greg Ropp.
The meat of the company’s squash is thicker than a regular pumpkin’s, which prevents the fruit from breaking open during windrowing. The seeds are also thicker and have larger kernels, he said.
Growers can generally earn $1,000 per acre from the crop, though some gave grossed as much as $1,650 per acre due to high yields, Greg Ropp said.
The company is always on the lookout for new farmers, as the crop can only be grown once every three to four years on one field, he said. “That virgin ground gets high yields.”
Rod Chambers, a farmer near Albany, Ore., said he grows the crop for rotation and diversification.
A new pre-emergent herbicide was recently labeled for the crop, which has eased weed control, he said.
Another plus is that Autumn Seed takes over once the squash is ripe, Chambers said. “The big benefit to me is they come in and harvest the crop.”