Field of screams
Sept./Oct. 2015 California Bountiful magazine
Story by Joyce Mansfield
Photos by Josh Marquez
Pumpkinsteins scare up attention
Ventura County farmer Tony Dighera made headlines last year when he introduced Pumpkinsteins.
Five years' work turned into an overnight success last Halloween, when Tony Dighera's 40-acre Cinagro Farms in Ventura County stepped into the spotlight with Pumpkinsteins—pumpkins specially grown to resemble Frankenstein faces.
"As soon as the first news story aired, it went completely nuts," said Dighera, the innovative farmer who came up with the idea. "Every news outlet, TV channel, newspaper came out and did stories."
As a result of his Pumpkinsteins becoming the media's seasonal darlings, Dighera had to ramp up to meet increased demand this year, including planned distribution in 637 Sam's Clubs stores across the nation.
While in 2014 Cinagro Farms produced 5,000 Pumpkinsteins, the 2015 harvest is expected to be 80,000 to 100,000 pumpkins of the Frankenstein likeness as well as a new skull-shaped white pumpkin.
Dighera grows novelty crops in custom molds, including heart-shaped and square watermelons, Pumpkinsteins, skull-shaped pumpkins and produce with imprinted logos and personalization.
Fruit mold, square plants
Although Pumpkinsteins became an overnight sensation, getting there was anything but fast.
Dighera grew up in Huntington Beach and spent childhood summers on his grandparents' farm in San Diego County. He left a 31-year career as a water-municipality subcontractor in 2003 to pursue growing organic vegetables and herbs, including kale, spinach, lettuce, parsley and cilantro—all of which he continues to produce.
"When you're a small farm, it's tough to be competitive," he said. "I knew right away that I had to come up with something different, something nobody else had."
He'd seen inedible, square-shaped watermelons in Asia and determinedly found a way to produce an edible version by allowing them to grow naturally in the field in custom plastic molds.
"We did a lot of testing and years of trial and error," he said. "I think I tried about 30 varieties of seed."
Dighera eventually found the right type and size and with that process finally perfected, moved on to other niche products, including heart-shaped watermelons and adding personalization.
"We make inserts, so we can put someone's name or picture or logo or whatever and actually imprint it into the fruit," Dighera explained.
"We are continually making new molds and doing a lot of innovative things with the watermelon, but I figured I could come up with a specialty item," he continued. "Christmas was just the wrong time of year (for growing), but the logical choice was Halloween and obviously a pumpkin."
He looked for a shape that would appeal to children and adults alike, and decided on a friendly likeness of the famous monster.
Pumpkinstein molds are bolted to young plants on the vine, which then grow into the shape of the plastic form.
Bolts and pieces
"It took five years," Dighera said of successfully harvesting his novelty crop. He worked with an artist and plastic manufacturer to create prototypes, but fabricated his own fruit and vegetable molds. They can be used for about seven seasons, he said.
Each Pumpkinstein mold includes a front and back, and like its namesake, is bolted together to form the head. Planting begins just as it does in any other field, and the pumpkins grow until they can fit into a mold, which is then bolted around the first two young pumpkins on each vine.
"From the time you put the molds on to the time it's ready to harvest is about 45 to 50 days," Dighera explained. "Once we know it's full, we can cut it off the vine."
The harvested pumpkins sit encased in the molds for one day to allow them to slightly shrink before the unbolting begins. Once unveiled, Pumpkinsteins are ready for distribution.
In addition to introducing the skull shape for this season, Dighera has trial plots growing shaped pumpkins in colors that range from gray to blue to beige. He also dabbles in custom molds and is producing a bottle-shaped watermelon with logo imprint for a liquor company.
There are other new items taking root at Cinagro, which is "organic" spelled backward. For example, a new line of kale croutons, called Kaletons, was created this summer.
"We're up to 98 percent kale, so it's almost completely made of kale," Dighera said. Sam's Club and Whole Foods placed standing orders while Kaletons were in development.
To offer novelty crops for additional events and holidays, such as heart-shaped watermelons for Valentine's Day, Dighera is looking to add greenhouse farming on his Fillmore property. He said that would also help decrease outdoor issues such as pests, mildew, weather shifts and even theft.
"Last season, we caught four people trying to steal molds," Dighera said. "I was kind of surprised, although I shouldn't be. We now have something nobody else has."
Harvest includes hands-on work after the Pumpkinsteins are brought in from the fields, as each mold is unbolted one by one.