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New Haven farmer has a passion for pumpkins

On a morning in late August, Sam Lester surveyed his pumpkin patch with satisfaction, examining a vine of deep green fruit that would soon ripen to their familiar, autumnal orange.
“In another few weeks,” he said, “this’ll be pumpkin central.”
Owner of Lester Farm in New Haven, Sam’s pumpkins cover five acres of his property, where he’s grown a wide variety of produce over the past nine years. But not even the juicy tomatoes, sweet ears of corn, or savory eggplant that Lester produces can displace pumpkins from the top spot in his heart.
“This is my passion, growing pumpkins,” he said. “They’re fun.”
Pumpkins, after all, offer up more variety than almost any other fruit you can find — Lester said he grows at least 30 different varieties.
“I’ve got white ones, I’ve got orange ones, black ones, pink ones, yellow ones — all kinds of different colors and sizes,” he said. “We’ve got lots of weird stuff here — stuff you’re not going to find at Agway or Shaw’s.”
Of particular note is a Japanese pumpkin, black with red spots, which Lester said has been growing smoothly this season after a couple of lackluster attempts in past years. This summer’s hot and dry weather, he explained, made for strong growth.
Lester starts his seeds in the greenhouse each May, before transplanting them to the fields in mid-June. Then, in early September, comes the harvest: a week of picking, washing, bleaching and crating, which, if all goes well, will culminate in the sale of 75,000-80,000 pounds of pumpkins. It’s not an easy process, he admits, but he’s found a way to perfect it nonetheless.
“They’re a pain in the neck,” he said, “But I’ve weeded out varieties over the years, figured out which ones I like, which ones I don’t like, which ones have fungus problems, which ones don’t.”
Over the years, Lester has grown to prefer disease-resistant varieties, which minimize the use of pesticides.
Lester Farm sells the bulk of its produce to retailers around the county — decorative pumpkins for jack o’ lanterns, even soft-shell pumpkins, which a local restaurant uses for crepes. And during recent pumpkin seasons, the farm has begun attracting passersby on Route 7 to a you-pick pumpkin patch, and a devoted “pumpkin house” where visitors can check out the wares — and buy them.
And how does the farmer himself prefer his pumpkins, once they’re picked and edible? After initially naming pumpkin pie as his favorite dish, Lester reconsidered.
“No, I take that back!” he exclaimed. “I’ve got a recipe for pumpkin cheesecake that’ll rock your world. Oh god, it’s delicious.”

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