Heads will roll: Mohammad Ali Rezai sets up a pumpkin display at Fountain Gate vegetable market. Photo: Wayne Taylor
TWELVE years ago, fresh produce wholesaler Moraitis took a punt on a variety of pumpkins that would cost customers about $15 each, yet are barely edible.
Some thought they were mad. But the Moraitis family were hopeful the Halloween tradition that has long been a part of American culture might soon take off here.
They enlisted contract growers to plant 1000 head of Spooky Pete pumpkins - the soft-skin variety commonly grown in America to be carved into jack o' lanterns come October 31.
''We were starting to get a few queries about them, so we started them as a bit of a trial here to see if there was any interest from a Halloween point of view,'' says Michael Antico, Moraitis' general manager for national retail solutions.
This year, three growers in far north Queensland and Broome planted 200,000 head of pumpkin between them. Mr Antico expects most of these will be snapped up in the coming days through supermarkets and independent grocers, including giants Coles and Woolworths.
''The demand has grown little by little every year and then probably in the last four or five years it has really started to escalate as Halloween as an event has really taken off here,'' Mr Antico says.
About 24 per cent of Australians plan to celebrate Halloween this year, according to McCrindle Research. Social analysts suggest the commercialisation of the event is behind its growing popularity.
Certainly, Moraitis has had a vested interest in promoting the event here. ''I guess we were one of the drivers of it because we were taking the pumpkins to the retailers and then we brought some of the confectionary people to the table with us and said, 'Well, maybe we can expand this and make a bigger event around it'.''
It seems to have worked. Coles says sales of its Spooky Pete pumpkins are up 30 per cent on last year. Mr Antico expects interest in Halloween and demand for jack o' lantern pumpkins to continue to rise.
With the average price per pumpkin about $15 and the variety better suited to carving than eating, the pumpkins are planted mid-year so they ripen just in time for trick-or-treating.
''Some people do eat them but they are predominantly bought and sold for ornamental reasons,'' Mr Antico says.