Scary times for pumpkin growers in New England

PORTLAND, Maine (AP) -- New England pumpkin growers, who spent the early summer mostly losing a battle with rain that destroyed many pumpkins, face the frightening prospect that the rest won't be ready before Halloween.

Jake MacDougall, of Waterboro, harvests pumpkins in Hollis, Maine. Many of New England's pumpkin growers lost much of their crop due to relentless rain in June and early July.

PORTLAND, Maine (AP) -- New England pumpkin growers, who spent the early summer mostly losing a battle with rain that destroyed many pumpkins, face the frightening prospect that the rest won't be ready before Halloween.

The relentless rain in June and July caused some seedlings to turn to mush in the soil and delayed the harvest up to two weeks, meaning pumpkins may not turn orange or grow large enough in time to be shipped to stores.

In Dayton, Maine, what looks like a plentiful crop of orange pumpkins is not so at Pumpkin World Inc., a subsidiary of Anderson Farms, said farmer Edward LeBlanc.

"If you saw our field, you'd say it looks beautiful," LeBlanc said of his 30 acres. "You would say, 'Wow, look at all the pumpkins. But we'd be saying, 'Wow, look at all the pumpkins that aren't going to quite make it, or look at all the pumpkins that aren't going to be large enough size to sell."

Some New England growers lost their entire crops, but others fared much better. Maine's harvest is expected to be off by about 50 percent, said Lauchlin Titus, a crop consultant with AgMatters LLC in Vassalboro and president of the Maine Vegetable and Small Fruit Growers Association.


LeBlanc says his yield will be down by half.

Consumers need not worry, though.

There's sufficient supply elsewhere to compensate for problems in New England, said Gary Lucier, an agricultural economist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

"Every year something happens with the pumpkin crop, someplace," Lucier said. "The problems crop up in the crop and people start saying we're going to be short of pumpkins and no one is going to get their pumpkins. In fact, everyone gets a pumpkin, but sometimes they pay more."

In New England, it has been a long slog.

Rain fell on 21 of the final 24 days of June in Portland, and it was the wettest summer in the city's history, according to the National Climatic Data Center. It was also the wettest summer on record in Concord, N.H., and Albany, N.Y., the data center said.

The rain caused waterlogged fields that killed plants. Bees stayed in their hives, slowing pollination of the flowering vines. Farmers had to work between rainstorms to apply fertilizer, fungicides and herbicides. Weeds and plant diseases spread. Some farmers had to replant.

"We've all taken our lumps this year with crop losses. Drowned fields are certainly going to reduce our yields significantly," said Bill Barrington, sales manager for Pioneer Valley Growers Association in Whately, Mass., a growers' cooperative with about 50 acres devoted to pumpkins.


In Vermont, the Gladstone Farm is one of New England's big pumpkin producers, with 150 acres devoted to pumpkins. This time of year, the pumpkins are supposed to be shipping out, but instead there are plenty of green pumpkins still on their vines, Margaret Gladstone said from Fairlee, Vt.

It's become a race against time as Gladstone and others anxiously wait to see whether those green pumpkins will become big and orange in time to be sold. If they aren't sold by Oct. 20, the pumpkins will be plowed under in the spring, Gladstone said.

The weather also caused sporadic problems in the Midwest, but overall the crop will be average in top pumpkin-producing states like Illinois, Pennsylvania, California, Ohio and Michigan, Lucier said.

In Illinois, the nation's pumpkin capital, it won't be a bumper crop, nor will it be a disaster, said Mohammad Babadoost, professor of plant pathology at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

But there were challenges there. Large growers who can afford expensive crop treatments tended to fare better than smaller growers, said Dan Hinkle, who grows 1,000 acres of pumpkins in Cissna Park, Ill. Hinkle spent $500,000 on chemical applications to prevent disease and weeds. That doesn't include fertilizer costs.

"As a general trend, most guys are going to do well, but I get a lot of calls from smaller growers, some who've even lost their entire crop to disease," he said.

Across the country, things have changed since the days when farmers tossed a few pumpkin seeds on the ground and hoped for the best. It's now a $250 million crop, Lucier said.

Nationwide, 92,955 acres of land were devoted to growing pumpkins in 2007, compared with 25,985 acres in 1982, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.


The bulk of pumpkins will be carved into jack-o'-lanterns or used as other decorations, while about 13 percent are canned for pie filling, Lucier said.

In Sabbattus, Maine, there are normally pumpkins all over Willow Pond Farm's apple orchards as people take wagon rides. This year, though, the farm harvested only a dozen or so carving pumpkins, and there weren't enough pie pumpkins to sell.

"It's very pretty to have a whole blanket of pumpkins around the farm. Kids like it. It's part of the fall seasonal picture, and we're going to miss that," said Jill Agnew, who runs the farm.

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