Rain, Drought, Wipe Out Pumpkin Crops Across U.S.

There's trouble brewing in the pumpkin patch.

Scorching weather and lack of rain this summer wiped out some pumpkin crops from western New York to Illinois, leaving fields dotted with undersized fruit. Other fields got too much rain and their crops rotted.

Pumpkin production is predicted to be down for the second straight year. U.S. Department of Agriculture figures show a slight production decrease from 2005 to 2006 in what the department estimates is a $100 million-a-year industry.

"If you've got to have them for your 5-year-olds, I certainly would not wait a long time to get them," said Steve Bogash, a Penn State University horticulture educator who works with about 1,600 Pennsylvania vegetable growers.

Pennsylvania, the nation's No. 2 producer, harvested what Bogash calls a beautiful early crop. But he said the state's midseason pumpkins were a bust and the fate of late-season pumpkins depends on decent weather holding on well into October.

A lack of rain in July and August seems to have hurt the most.

Hot, dry weather causes pumpkins to produce too many male blossoms and too few female ones. Farmers also can blame drought for scads of small pumpkins as well as lighter weights because of a lack of water.

Standing in a 2-acre pumpkin field at his Buffalo farm, Bob Gritt lamented the poor color and small size of the crop surrounding him.

"The color's not real good on them," he said. "There's not very many big ones in there."

At least Gritt has pumpkins. Some West Virginia farmers don't.

The West Virginia Pumpkin Festival has found itself in the unusual position of importing pumpkins for the four-day event beginning Thursday that lures about 40,000 visitors to Milton every year, organizer Martha Poore said.

Boyd Meadows, owner of Halfway Markets Inc. in Milton, says he's importing pumpkins for many customers who can't get them from their home state.

"I think that anywhere that anybody had irrigation, they got a lot of pumpkins," Meadows said. "Anybody that did it just planting the pumpkins and depending on Mother Nature to give them water, got a very, very poor crop, if any."

Meadows estimates that production is down two-thirds in West Virginia, Kentucky and parts of Ohio. Indiana, conversely, got a big crop, which Meadows attributes to adequate rainfall there and in northern Ohio, the nation's top pumpkin state.

"They got rain," he said. "A lot of things are being brought in here from out there."

The drought has also hurt growers in western New York, and in Michigan, as much as half the crop has been lost because of hot, dry weather in the north, Michigan State University extension educator Ron Goldy estimates. Heavy rain that left standing water in southern Michigan fields caused much of the crop to rot, a problem Goldy says also affected parts of Illinois, Indiana and Ohio.

Ask southern Illinois grower Sarah Frey what happened this summer and she's quick to respond: "Thirty percent loss, at least. Hot, dry weather, drought. It was all those days that we had that were 105 degrees."

Hot weather also pushed the harvest up three weeks, forcing Frey to persuade the big retailers she supplies from more than 3,000 acres of pumpkins to take delivery early. About the only thing that turned out well for Frey was her miniature heirloom pumpkins. "They had a much better tolerance," she said.

If the poor harvest has a bit of a silver lining, it's that pumpkins are selling for higher prices.

Meadows says he's paying 15 cents a pound, compared with a typical price of 10 cents to 12 cents a pound. Of course, that price gets passed on to consumers, whom he estimates will pay between 35 cents and 39 cents a pound, compared with the customary 29 cents a pound.

Yet they'll be getting less.

"There's no moisture in them," Meadows said. "The public is paying more per pound for it, but they're getting less."