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It’s the Great Pumpkin, BPR: The History, Culture, and Economic Promise of Pumpkins in Ukraine

In the United States, the arrival of late autumn means just one thing for your taste palate: Here comes the pumpkin. With pumpkin muffins, pumpkin pies, pumpkin breads, pumpkin spice lattes, and even pumpkin cannolis, the fruit is found just about everywhere during October and November. But while Americans see this odd orange squash as a symbol of Halloween jack-o-lanterns or Thanksgiving dessert, many other cultures use pumpkins for a variety of other purposes. In countries from South Africa to Afghanistan, pumpkins are a staple in soups, stews, and even fried dishes. Serbians have used pumpkin seeds as a remedy for boils, and some Ugandan burial traditions include sprinkling graves with the fruit’s seeds. Before the colonization of North America, different indigenous groups used pumpkins in creative ways, from the Pawnee construction of pumpkin floor mats to the Iroquois creation of musical instruments. 

But, one country’s unique tradition, cultivation, and consumption of the pumpkin stands out. Pumpkins in Ukraine extend far beyond their autumn additives in America. In 2019, Ukraine was the third-largest pumpkin producer in the world. A newcomer to the global pumpkin market, Ukraine’s pumpkin exports have increased twelve-fold in the last five years, surging above the United States and Mexico. In 2020, Ukrainians consumed 33 kg of pumpkins per capita, the highest rate on Earth and more than three times greater than the country with the second-highest rate of consumption. Most eye-catchingly, though, is an old Ukrainian marital tradition, which let women reject their suitors’ proposals with pumpkins. Yes, you read that right: pumpkins. With a rich history and profits to be made, Ukrainians must now more than ever embrace the pumpkin—their familiar, yet funky, fall friend. 

In order to discuss the economic potential for pumpkin cultivation going forward, it is imperative to address the squash’s culinary and cultural context in Ukraine. Pumpkins arrived in Ukraine during the seventeenth century and thereafter became the critical ingredient in dishes like pumpkin porridge, baked pumpkin, and pumpkin pie. The majority of pumpkins in Ukraine are grown on individual garden plots, since families can easily harvest and use the fruit’s flesh, flowers, and seeds for a host of dishes. Then, of course, there are the social implications of rejection by pumpkin. In prior centuries, men would traditionally visit a woman’s house in order to propose. If the woman accepted the proposal, she would invite her suitor in for a drink with her parents, but, if she rejected it, she would silently present him with a pumpkin and send him on his way. While that practice has become uncommon nowadays, references to pumpkins—harbuz in Ukrainian—are still regular; to refuse a proposition of some kind, one might remark “I’ll just have to hand you the pumpkin on that one.” The pumpkin’s presence in Ukrainian tradition highlights its existing societal importance which can serve as a basis for continuing to build pumpkin prominence in local economies.

As it turns out, pumpkins may be part of the solution to a much bigger problem. Despite being one of the poorest countries in Europe, Ukraine has incredibly rich soil, which is very conducive to agriculture. Yet, until recently, Ukraine was the only democracy in the world that prohibited the private buying and selling of farmland. For seven decades, Soviet-controlled Ukraine owned and managed all farmland, which the newly independent state then tried to undo with land privatization efforts in 1991. However, dire economic circumstances during the late 1990s forced many to sell their land. Unfortunately, an emerging class of oligarchs consolidated much of this land, ultimately leading the government to impose a moratorium prohibiting the transfer of privately owned land or the further privatization of state-owned land. After two decades of little change, the Rada, Ukraine’s government, passed Law 552-IX earlier this year, ending the moratorium and setting up new ways for citizens and companies to buy and transfer land. 

That sort of step is unprecedented for Ukraine, where the government owned 25 percent of farmland as late as 2016, equivalent to around two-thirds of Germany’s total arid fertile land. Even as the fears of corrupt land seizures and imperfect implementation pose major hurdles to putting wealth in the hands of Ukrainian farmers, these developments offer a unique chance for millions of Ukrainians to own, develop, and eventually pass down land. Given the profitability of pumpkins worldwide and familiarity of pumpkin growing in Ukrainian culture, now is the time for Ukrainian farmers to continue the transition of pumpkin cultivation from a local gardening habit to a successful, easily replicable business model. 

Indeed, growing pumpkins can be an exceptionally profitable business. For one, they do not require much special skills, staff, or equipment to maintain, and they are fairly easy to grow. A family farm can start growing pumpkins without having to invest time and money into tending land that may have been newly purchased, and just a handful of adults can harvest the year’s produce with their bare hands. Paired with Ukraine’s rich soil, pumpkin cultivation is a strong option for new farmers because there are lower input costs and risks of failure compared to other staple crops. The products, on the other hand, are remarkably marketable. Even if harvest time does not produce the most gorgeous gourds, there are a variety of other ways to profit off of pumpkins. Pumpkin seed oil is notably more expensive than other vegetable-made oils despite its lower input costs, and demand could rise by more than 15 percent over the next five years. Demand for pumpkin seeds will also increase globally over the next decade, especially due to a growing market for pumpkin-based cosmetic products in Europe. For prospective Ukrainian farmers, pumpkin growing is an economic recipe for greatness or, as one columnist put it, “the gold literally lying on the ground.”

As evidenced by its recent surge to the top of the export market, Ukraine is on the right track when it comes to pumpkins. Nevertheless, President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelensky and the Rada should work to ensure profitable markets for pumpkins abroad as farmers purchase and develop land at home. After Brexit, Zelensky successfully brokered a pumpkin trade deal with the United Kingdom, which comprised nearly half of Ukraine’s export market last year. Building this trade partnership has helped to facilitate Ukraine’s rapid 76 percent export growth during 2020, and establishing similar deals with other nations like the United States will prove fruitful for the Ukrainian economy. More importantly, though, building opportunities for a Ukrainian pumpkin market abroad will help continue to incentivize the transition to pumpkin farming at home, which in turn will enable Ukrainian farmers to build wealth on newly acquired land. Pumpkins may traditionally represent a sign of rejection—a delicacy worth dodging—but with new access to land, a booming export market, and ripe farming conditions, for Ukraine, orange may very well be the new gold.

Photo by Matt Eberle on Unsplash