- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 21, 2008

LUBBOCK, Texas | The pumpkin market may get squashed.

Greg Carthel well knows the toll recent rains have taken on his family’s pumpkin patch in the state’s top-producing county.

Several heavy downpours across many parts of West Texas in the past few weeks came at inopportune times for pumpkin producers. Muddy fields filled with the orange orbs must dry out before they can be harvested and sold. The delays have cost several thousand dollars.

“We couldn’t get them out of the field,” he said. “We didn’t have them to sell.”

It’s prime pumpkin time across the country with Halloween and Thanksgiving on the horizon. Folks are gearing up to carve the gourds; others will make pies from the innards.

Demand for pumpkins is at a new high, Texas agriculture officials said, and it’s mostly because there are fewer pumpkins this year. Across the country, pumpkin prices are up in many places, though that could reflect increased production and transportation costs, said Gary Lucier of the U.S. Agriculture Department.

U.S. pumpkin production has grown significantly over the past 25 years, according to a 2007 USDA report. The number of farms reporting pumpkin acreage has more than doubled since 1982 to 14,073 farms and harvested area has more than tripled to an estimated 96,400 acres. Illinois typically leads as the nation’s top producer with Texas ranking seventh in acreage.

Morton, Ill., about 10 miles from Peoria in the central part of the state, bills itself as the world’s pumpkin capital. About 80 percent of the world’s canned pumpkins are packed at a plant in the town of about 16,000.

In Texas, Floyd County farmers planted fewer acres and yields are down.

“I would suspect our supply will be short once we get to Halloween time,” said J.D. Ragland, a Texas agricultural extension agent.

Prices are high because of a diminished supply. Pumpkins, which come in several varieties ranging in size from less than 2 pounds to as much as 300, this year are selling for an average of 13 cents a pound, Mr. Ragland said. The average price over the past 10 years has been 6 cents a pound.

Most of Floyd County’s pumpkins go to metropolitan grocery store chains. In years past, some of the county’s pumpkins made their way to Japan. The drop in acreage this year is basic economics, Mr. Ragland said.

Pumpkin production is labor intensive. Workers must walk through fields, cutting the festive gourds from their vines and loading them onto trucks.

“Everything done with the pumpkin needs to be done by hand,” he said. “Hand labor is expensive.”

Producers also had to water the crop earlier in the season, which added to their irrigation costs. Pumpkin fields need 27 inches of moisture for optimum growth.

“Energy costs are just so high,” pumpkin farmer Mr. Carthel said, adding that running irrigation pumps prohibits many growers from planting more acres.

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