Tony Dighera was working long hours, losing sleep and running low on money. But the organic farmer from California had a Great Pumpkin Dream. The dream was to grow pumpkins into shapes, using molds, and become rich harvesting the Frankenfruit and selling it for top dollar.
"I couldn't make it work," he said. "I tried everything, and it would not work, to the point where I was ready to give up."
Four years of trial and error with different molds and dozens of pumpkin varieties had Dighera exasperated, but he had one more idea. "I wanted to try just to see if it would make a difference, and it did," he said. "I knew I had it."
Dighera told us this a year ago, when we first met him at his Cinagro Farms (Cinagro is "organic" spelled backward).
He showed us his "Pumpkinsteins, " real pumpkins that look like Frankenstein. "These we are selling for $100, and they're about 95 percent sold. ... I've got people from Dubai calling me to order these things." He also displayed watermelons grown into the shapes of hearts or cubes.
After CNBC profiled Dighera's Pumpkinsteins, other reporters followed. He even landed on the front page of The New York Times.
It's been quite a year.
"Let me tell you, it's something I never expected," Dighera said during our recent return to his farm. He was there meeting with representatives of Sam's Club, who heard about the Pumpkinsteins last year and emailed him. "I've got to be honest, originally, I just kind of blew it off," the farmer said. After all, Cinagro was producing a manageable number of pumpkins for top dollar, "and I just didn't think it was a fit."
Sam's Club, however, was persistent. The Wal-Mart subsidiary found itself in the unusual position of having to sell itself to a client rather than the other way around. Dighera finally relented. He said he realized that a large partner could help him scale his business. "I've got a lot of other ideas I want to do."
"It aligns with a lot of different items that we have," said Russ Mounce, head of floral and produce for Sam's Club, who admits his first reaction to seeing a Pumpkinstein was, "Is it real?"
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Mounce said Sam's Club specializes in treasure hunts for unique items, like grapes it recently sold that taste like cotton candy. However, they were not going to sell Pumpkinsteins for Dighera's normal price.
"They're not going to be $100, they're going to be less than $30 at Sam's Club this year," said Mounce. "We want a sustainable program." Dighera agreed to the lower price, believing it will make his products a Halloween staple. "If you price it too high, the people in that category will buy it obviously, just because it's unique, but I think it will quickly fade."
Even so, Dighera does not have an exclusive deal with Sam's yet, so this year he is still able to sell Pumpkinsteins in other chains at higher prices. That's if he can meet demand. Last year, Cinagro produced about 5,000 Pumpkinsteins. This year? "We've got orders for probably close to 90,000." To meet that goal, Dighera has begged and borrowed for more land. He has also contracted out to other farmers, giving them his molds and paying them $11 a pumpkin.
There are even failures that turned into successes. Some workers didn't securely lock both sides of a mold together last year, and the back fell off. What remained was a pumpkin with a Frankenstein face surrounded by a cloud of orange. It was such a hit Dighera started doing that on purpose. He might even try to do something with Pumpkinsteins that exploded inside molds during a massive heat wave. "They literally explode," he said. "You'll be on the other side of the field, and you'll hear it." The result is a pumpkin that looks like Frankenstein as a zombie.
Dighera is also working on a white pumpkin next year that will grow inside a skull mold, and he hopes to find a large enough greenhouse to grow his heart-shaped watermelons for Valentine's Day. He's also trying to ride the kale wave with kale croutons, bread, and what may be his most over-the-top idea so far, chocolate kale kids cereal. "Believe it or not, it's phenomenal."
It doesn't sound phenomenal, but Dighera isn't one to give up, and now he's finally making money. "It's made it a lot easier to sleep at night," he said. "It's starting to become fun."