Pumpkins Thriving Amid Midwest Drought Signals Glut on Halloween

The drought that damaged corn and soybean fields across the U.S. Midwest this year provided near-ideal conditions for pumpkin farmers in Illinois, where a bumper crop is ensuring cheaper jack-o’-lanterns for Halloween.

Illinois, the nation’s largest grower, may boost output by as much as 5 percent to a record 546.4 million pounds (247,852 metric tons), said Mohammad Babadoost, a plant pathologist and extension specialist at the University of Illinois in Urbana. The biggest harvest ever was 542 million pounds in 2007, U.S. Department of Agriculture data show.

Three-quarters of U.S. pumpkins are carved for decoration during the Oct. 31 Halloween festival. While drought damaged corn and soybean fields, sending prices to records, pumpkins tracked by the USDA fetched $4.47 each on average at the end of last month, 3 percent less than the 2011 average because of ample supplies for retailers, including Wal-Mart Stores Inc.

“We have seen the most-plentiful pumpkin crops ever,” said Pam Bengtson, the co-owner of Bengtson’s pumpkin farm in Homer Glen, Illinois, who plans to buy as much as 500 tons, or 50,000 pumpkins, this year.

October is the peak month at Bengtson’s farm, located about 31 miles (50 kilometers) southwest of downtown Chicago. She and her husband, Dave, expect as many as 100,000 visitors to buy, carve and even launch pumpkins 2,000 feet into a distant pond with its “Punkin Chucker.”

The orange vegetable is usually planted from late May to early July and harvested in late September or early October. This year’s drought included the warmest weather since 1936 in Illinois, the largest U.S. grower of corn and soybeans after Iowa. Field conditions began deteriorating in June, and by July more than 95 percent of the state was experiencing a severe drought, according to the Drought Monitor in Lincoln, Nebraska.

Drought Damage

Production of corn, the biggest and most-valuable U.S. crop, probably will tumble 13 percent this year, the USDA said Oct. 11. In June, before the drought took hold, the agency was predicting a 20 percent increase and a record harvest. Prices are up more than 46 percent since mid-June and reached a record $8.49 a bushel on Aug. 10.

“Pumpkins are a hardy, hardy vegetable” that thrives on hot, dry weather, said Daniel Fournie, the president of the Illinois Vegetable Growers Association in Collinsville. “Our pumpkins have not had an ounce of water. You’ve gotta scratch your head about that one. It’s one for the books.”

Unlike most farms growing corn or soybeans, about half the pumpkin fields in Illinois are irrigated. Those with their own water supply are producing on average 18-pound jack-o-lanterns and record crops, compared with 14 pounds to 15 pounds on non-irrigated farms, said Steve Reiners, an associate professor in horticulture at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.

Best Ever

Even with lower prices, the value of the state’s output this year may surpass last year’s $21.9 million, University of Illinois’ Babadoost said.

“Some growers say they have the best crop ever” because the hot weather helped reduce crop diseases, he said.

From June 1 to Aug. 31, the temperature reached or exceeded 85 degrees Fahrenheit (29 Celsius) on 61 days in Peoria, Illinois, about 17 miles west of Morton, the self-proclaimed pumpkin capital of the world, National Weather Service data show. Growers who planted before or after the hottest days did not suffer any damages, Babadoost said.

Carving pumpkins in the U.S. dates back to the 1850’s, when English and Irish immigrants adapted their tradition of fashioning turnips into frightening figures to keep away bad spirits, according to history professor, Gerry Bowler, at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, Canada. The practice became more common with the development of Halloween festivities.

Halloween Spending

On average, each American will spend $79.82 on costumes, candy and decorations, including pumpkins, for Halloween, up from $72.31 in 2011 because of higher prices, according to the National Retail Federation’s Halloween Consumer Spending survey.

Demand rose in the late 1980’s with the emerging popularity of pick-your-own farms across the country, Cornell’s Reiners said. Last year, Americans spent $113 million on pumpkins, according to data compiled from the six-top producing states by the USDA.

“We’ve got people that are willing to spend incredible amounts of money to have that farm experience,” Reiners said. “Growers started to realize this could be a real money-making crop.”

About one-quarter of the U.S. crop are light brown pumpkins without ribs that are canned or used in pie filling, said Suzanne Thornsbury, a USDA economist in Washington, D.C. Morton, Illinois-based Libby’s, a unit of Nestle SA, produces about four of every five cans of canned pumpkin sold in the U.S. A 29-ounce can of 100 Percent Pure Pumpkin sells for $3.19, unchanged from last year, the company said.

Drought Epicenter

“The many thousands of acres of pumpkin we grow are located right in the midst of the drought-stricken area,” said Roz O’Hearn, a Nestle spokeswoman in Solon, Ohio.

Pumpkin quality has remained high even with the drought, mostly because heat does less damage to crops than too much moisture, O’Hearn said. In 2009, rainfall that was twice the previous record saturated fields and damaged crops. Speculators sold cans of pumpkin at “exorbitant” prices on Ebay Inc., she said.

“Although dry years scare farmers, it’s the wet, flooding years that really kills them,” Cornell’s Reiners said.

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