Green gold

The pump­kin is a spe­cial crop that has a long-stand­ing tra­di­tion in Styr­ia. Now, the fruit with its seed oil is also mak­ing an inter­na­tion­al name for itself. Local farm­ers and also the region are ben­e­fit­ing from this.

Pump­kins in swaths? Thresh­ing them? It’s hard to believe, but that’s exact­ly how Styr­i­ans get the seed oil which char­ac­teris­es the cook­ing cul­ture of the whole region. On sun­ny Sep­tem­ber days, Aus­tri­an farmer Alois Thi­er, in the small town of Ober­lamm, mounts a snow plough-like attach­ment to the front of his trac­tor which push­es the ripe pump­kins, almost hid­den under knotweed, St John’s Wort and salt­bush, togeth­er into rows.

Then, the plump, yel­low, foot­ball-sized fruits are reaped by a self-pro­pelled har­vester or by a har­vest­ing machine pulled by a trac­tor. In both instances, a hedge­hog-like spiked roller picks up the fruits lay­ing on the ground. A shred­ding bar­rel squash­es the pump­kins and, assist­ed by brush­es and pneu­mat­ic suc­tion, the seeds are sep­a­rat­ed from the flesh of the fruit into a siev­ing drum. A con­vey­or then car­ries the slip­pery seeds to the tank. The chopped up flesh of the fruit ends up on the field again.

Using trac­tors with attach­ments sim­i­lar to snow plows, the oil pump­kins are pushed into rows for har­vest­ing.

The thresh­ing tech­nique of the har­vesters act in a sim­i­lar way. How­ev­er, there are only six exam­ples of these, con­struct­ed through painstak­ing pio­neer­ing work by con­trac­tor Karl Wil­f­ing from Großstein­bach , who mod­i­fied com­bine har­vesters for this pur­pose. The advan­tage of this method is the speed of the har­vest. In any case, the era of man­u­al de-seed­ing – as was pre­vi­ous­ly com­mon prac­tice – is well and tru­ly over. Only very few Styr­i­an farm­ers per­form this man­u­al work on small parcels of land.

Find­ing the right time

On the con­trary, today, when the oil pump­kins cul­ti­vat­ed on more than 9,800 ha in the south­ern and south­west­ern part of Styr­ia turn yel­low, it is a mat­ter of urgency. The radi­ant dash­es of colour on the pump­kin fields indi­cate that the required ripeness for har­vest­ing the “green gold” con­tained in the seeds has been reached. “In order to pick the right har­vest­ing time, you need to have a good, expe­ri­enced knack for it. If you har­vest too ear­ly, you have prob­lems with oil qual­i­ty; too late and you run the risk of the fruit decay­ing quick­ly,” says Rein­hold Puch­er, a mem­ber of the Work­ing Group of Arable Farm­ers of the Styr­i­an Cham­ber of Agri­cul­ture. “Also, no oth­er fruit is quite so depen­dent on the weath­er,” he adds. It doesn’t like cold in the spring, often suf­fers from dry­ness in the sum­mer and rain dur­ing the har­vest quick­ly has a neg­a­tive impact on the qual­i­ty.

In order to pick the right ­har­vest­ing time, you need to have a good, expe­ri­enced knack for it.

Rein­hold Puch­er

After “thresh­ing”, the pump­kin seeds need to be dried out from a max­i­mum water con­tent of 60% down to 6 to 8% with­in a few hours. “I know from the way a pump­kin seed cracks what its humid­i­ty lev­el is,” Karl Höfler, a mill farmer in Kain­dorf, says about the sen­si­tive hand­i­craft. “If the seed bends, instead of break­ing, when we do the break­ing tests, it is too moist,” he explains, stand­ing in front of a tub that is heat­ed to 130 °C, in which fine­ly-ground pump­kin seeds are knead­ed into a green pulp with water and salt and then gen­tly roast­ed. The pulp then goes into a press, out of which flows the strong-tast­ing oil. The colour varies: the seed oil has a dark red tone to it, but looks light green in thin lay­ers.

A secure source of income

Johannes Klein cul­ti­vates oil ­pump­kins.

If the aro­ma of their pump­kin seed oil tastes any­where near as good as their home-baked pas­tries this sea­son, Moni­ka and Johannes Klein will not have any dif­fi­cul­ty in direct­ly mar­ket­ing their region­al prod­uct again. At an alti­tude of 400 m the young cou­ple oper­ate a side­line farm in the Styr­i­an com­mu­ni­ty of Gnas. Their farm, which has an old orchard, where lilacs, pears, peach­es, wal­nuts and apple trees grow, is sit­u­at­ed on the ridge of a frag­ment­ed, hilly land­scape.

For the past ten years they also grow pump­kins. “The pump­kins only make up a small share of our turnover,” says Johannes Klein, who took over the farm from his par­ents as the youngest of sev­en chil­dren and works full-time at the Cham­ber of Agri­cul­ture. “Nev­er­the­less, the fruit is a secure, addi­tion­al source of income for us with a high added val­ue.” While the har­vest­ing, press­ing and bot­tling is all con­tract­ed out, after they have siphoned off 10 l oil for their own con­sump­tion, the Kleins car­ry out the direct mar­ket­ing under the trade mark “100% Styr­i­an pump­kin seed oil PGI”.

Clear proof of ori­gin

About 3,000 farm­ers , among them some who cul­ti­vate up to 30 ha, cul­ti­vate pump­kins in Styr­ia. At least 75% of them are mem­bers of the Asso­ci­a­tion of Styr­i­an Pump­kin Seed Oil “Pro­tect­ed Geo­graph­i­cal Indi­ca­tion”, PGI for short. Thir­ty of the mills where the seeds are pressed are also rep­re­sent­ed. Only very few peo­ple involved “do their own thing”. The employ­ees of the Asso­ci­a­tion of Styr­i­an Pump­kin Seed Oil PGI keep a watch­ful eye to ensure that the Styr­i­an ori­gin is always clear­ly ver­i­fi­able and also com­plies with the qual­i­ty cri­te­ria. Only then is the man­u­fac­tur­er allowed to stick the band with the “PGI” endorse­ment to the bot­tle neck.

For Andreas Cret­nik, Man­ag­ing Direc­tor of the Asso­ci­a­tion, the region­al ori­gin, cou­pled with the local exper­tise, is vital to the

That is where the name green gold comes from. The colour of the oil glim­mers from black-green to a sub­tle olive-green.

image of Styr­i­an pump­kin seed oil. It is the key to the fur­ther devel­op­ment of the valu­able region­al prod­uct. “Our suc­cess is 50% based on good agri­cul­tur­al prac­tice, espe­cial­ly dur­ing the har­vest­ing time. A skilled hand in the dry­ing, roast­ing and press­ing of the seeds is also impor­tant; the rest is down to mar­ket­ing.”

The Man­ag­ing Direc­tor expects a future annu­al growth of 5%. In fact, more and more con­sumers, espe­cial­ly from abroad – in Ger­many, France and Switzer­land – use Styria’s “green gold”. In order to ensure that the suc­cess is per­ma­nent, Cret­nik has a flaw­less­ly trans­par­ent proof of ori­gin in mind: “At the moment, there are three dif­fer­ent meth­ods, which only deliv­er par­tial results. ” The declared aim is, in his words, by using an oil sam­ple to be able to pre­cise­ly estab­lish which area and which soil the pump­kins that pro­duced the test­ed oil were grown in. Par­tic­u­lar­ly since trans­paren­cy is extreme­ly impor­tant in these times of recur­ring food scan­dals.

An annu­al cham­pi­onship with big media cov­er­age, where top chefs award the best farm­ers and proces­sors, draws pump­kins into the spot­light. The expert also read­i­ly points out the aller­gen-free nature of pump­kin seed oil; the addi­tion of arti­fi­cial addi­tives is taboo. The strong-tast­ing oil also sup­pos­ed­ly has a vit­a­min E con­tent five times high­er than that of olive oil. Under­stand­ably, pump­kin seed oil pro­mot­ers are try­ing to make the pub­lic aware of the health ben­e­fits of their prod­ucts with new stud­ies.

Pump­kins need good soil

Self-pro­mo­tion is part and par­cel of the busi­ness. Farm­ers who inte­grate pump­kins into their crop rota­tions are pleased, as a high­er aware­ness of the prod­uct beyond the bor­ders ulti­mate­ly means more demand. How­ev­er, grow­ing this plant from the cucum­ber fam­i­ly is not an agri­cul­tur­al no-brain­er. Pump­kins need good, nutri­ent-rich soil and there is a lot of com­pe­ti­tion with weeds and grass­es. It is also unfor­tu­nate that corn root­worm is nour­ished by the pump­kin blos­soms and there­fore threat­ens the corn that fol­lows. A big prob­lem for which, as of yet, there is no solu­tion.

How­ev­er, the Styr­i­an farm­ers con­tin­ue to rely on their pump­kins and the cook­ing oil obtained from them. Pump­kin seed oil is to the Styr­i­ans what olive oil is to the Greeks, Ital­ians or Span­ish. It is a fruit that sym­bol­is­es the region­al iden­ti­ty and, more­over, embod­ies the dis­tinc­tive flavour of Styr­ia.

Pump­kin facts

The oil pump­kin needs good soil and a lot of warmth. Approx­i­mate­ly 18,000 plants flour­ish on 1 ha at a row spac­ing of 70 cm. The frost-sen­si­tive seed is placed 3 cm deep; read­i­ly avail­able nitro­gen is impor­tant for the begin­ning of the growth. Weeds and grass­es gen­er­al­ly per­sis­tent­ly com­pete with the cucum­ber plant. In a nor­mal year, a pump­kin har­vest of about 5 t/ha is expect­ed. This pro­vides about 500 kg of seeds which, with an oil con­tent of 40%, pro­duce about 200 l oil/ha. The price for 1 l bot­tled pump­kin seed oil is cur­rent­ly about € 17.