CHICAGO – Drought and excessive heat reduced this year's pumpkin harvest, but there should be enough of the fruit for Halloween and the U.S. Thanksgiving holiday providing consumers do not mind paying a little more than last year.
"It's not hard to find pumpkins out there, but there are not a lot of pumpkins compared to most years," said Steve Bogash, a horticulture educator at Penn State University.
Extreme dryness hit much of the northern United States this summer, sapping the harvest in four of the top five pumpkin-producing states: New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Illinois. Rounding out the top five is California.
Sarah Frey-Talley, who runs one of the country's largest pumpkin patches, Frey Farms in Keenes, Illinois, said her harvest is down 30 percent.
"It's been a tough growing year in the Midwest. We went over a month and a half without rain. Excessive heat severely affected the crop," she said.
A major supplier of retailers such as Wal-Mart Stores Inc (WMT) and Kroger Co (KR) and Frey Farms will be forced to buy pumpkins from other patches to meet orders.
"We'll feel the brunt of the shortage between the second and third week of October. We'll start outsourcing pumpkins (then)," Frey-Talley said.
Bogash, who closely watches vegetable production in what he calls the "vegetable basket" of Pennsylvania — or the nine counties surrounding Harrisburg — said hardest hit was the Jack-o'-lantern variety, which is popular for carving but not so much for baking.
"The ones that take the worst beating when it's hot are the larger ones," Bogash said.
Tim Assiter, owner of Assiter Punkins Ranch in Floydada, Texas, one of a handful of towns claiming to be the "pumpkin capital" of the United States, said cooler temperatures there caused more pumpkins to grow on each vine, resulting in a larger number of pumpkins that weighed less than in previous years.
"The price has tended to climb 2 to 3 percent a year, but the consumer has seen a lot of increase," Assiter said, adding that increases on the retail side are more likely attributed to higher freight costs than a pumpkin shortage.
Generally, U.S. pumpkin prices have gone up about 10 cents per pound compared with last year. A 16-pound jack-o'-lantern was selling for $7, or about 44 cents per pound, this week at a supermarket in downtown Chicago.
Illinois is the largest pumpkin producer in both harvested acres and production, with 12,700 harvested acres (5,080 hectares) compared with 7,300 acres (2,920 hectares) for the No. 2 state, Pennsylvania. The 2006 figures are from the United States Department of Agriculture, which publishes pumpkin statistics once a year, in January.
Pumpkins are typically planted in June, with harvest beginning in late August and running through October.
This year, however, most of the pumpkins may be gone by Halloween. "If you're looking for pumpkins in the last week of October, you might be disappointed," Bogash said.
Helping relieve pressure on the jack-o'-lantern crop is the increasing popularity of smaller, heirloom varieties, such as gray-blue Jarrahdale or the Marina di Chioggia, pumpkins native to Australia and Italy, respectively.
"It's not that the jack-o'-lanterns are taking a back seat, but the new colors and textures are what consumers are looking for," said Frey-Talley, who recently wrote a recipe and photo book, "For the Love of Pumpkins." All of her heirloom pumpkins are sold out for the year, she said.