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New winter squash products enhance Costa’s line of fall ornamentals

Dan D. Costa Inc., which is located near Manteca, CA, specializes in pumpkins, mini-pumpkins, gourds and other ornamental produce items for fall décor. Complementing that product line, the company now offers also a line of fresh cut hard shell or winter squash in some innovative consumer pack styles.

A new item for the company is an overwrapped tray with peeled wedges of calabaza de Castilla, a type of heavily sutured pumpkin squash that is a favorite of Hispanic consumers, according to Dan Costa, president and founder of the company. Costa also offers in pre-cut consumer packs is Butternut squash.

The Castilla is also known as Fairytale pumpkin because it resembles the Cinderella’s pumpkin coach from the Disney movie.

It is “very popular with the Hispanic trade, especially down south in the Los Angeles area,” Mr. Costa said. “But it comes as a large 17- to 20-pound pumpkin” which consumers have had to take home whole and cut up to use.

“What we do is we take the Castilla squash and cut it up in a way that displays very nice in a tray package,” he said. “It looks great, the way we package it. So now, instead of someone buying a 20-pound pumpkin and having to take an ax to it to cut it open” before cooking it, and having a lot of unused squash left over, now they can “just buy a two-pound tray” of the product already “cut up, ready to go.

Pre-cut Butternut squash is commonly offered by the industry in a 20-ounce container of cubed product, Mr. Costa said. But “we put it in our little microwavable cups” in both single-serving and three-serving sizes, making it an item that “you can take anywhere to pop in the microwave” and have a fresh cooked vegetable for lunch at the office or dinner at home.

The shelf life on most pre-cut Butternut squash on the market is about 21 days, he said. But “the way we package our Butternut squash, we are getting 35 to 40 days” of shelf life on the product.

It is still the line of ornamental fall items that “pays the bills” at Costa, however, Mr. Costa said. “Along with the large Halloween pumpkins” available in assorted varieties and sizes, the company offers an assortment of mini-pumpkins and gourds as well as dried ornamental corn and decorative wheat bundles.

“One item that has been popular,” he said, is a mesh bag with “a nice mixture” of four different mini-pumpkins of varying shapes and colors.”

For one major retail chain, the company is doing an “all-in-one box” with an assortment of fall decorating items for the home.

Mr. Costa first got into the pumpkin business in 1973 when he was in eighth grade. “My dad wanted to give me a little money-making project so I could buy my first car,” he said. It consisted of five acres of pumpkins as a 4-H project.

Initially, “I was selling through a local broker, and one year he only sold one-third of my crop,” Mr. Costa said. Recognizing he couldn’t grow his business much when the broker “couldn’t sell my full crop and it wasn’t that many acres,” he said, “I decided to sell on my own from there.”

He began selling the pumpkins to various pumpkin lots, and “at one pumpkin lot that we were selling to around Halloween time, we went to go visit and I noticed that there was a … little miniature pumpkin there” that his customer had grown quantity from seed a relative back east had sent, getting something like 50 mini-pumpkins from one vine.

“I went with that little mini-pumpkin all through the different chain stores in our area” and in Southern California, “and said ‘I’ve got a new item for next year,’“ Mr. Costa said. The buyers showed interest, so “I planted 20 acres of these mini-pumpkins, the first one in California to do that, and my dad said, ‘Are you crazy? Why did you go so hog wild?’ I said, ‘Well, I think I’ve got them sold.” That year, he was the only grower in the state producing mini-pumpkins for the chain stores, he said, and “I made a name for myself.”

That was around 1982, he said, and from there he began to add other ornamentals, basically “anything we could raise on the ranch as sell as a decoration in the fall. That is how we [became] a leader in fall ornamentals on the West Coast.”

In addition to local chainstores, Costa sells to several national supermarket chains as well as club stores.