by Cathy Bell
(originally posted on vtdigger.org)
Back in the middle of September, a headline caught my eye. “Northeast Faces Devastating Pumpkin Shortage,” I read, with a mixture of amusement and trepidation.
Devastating? Really? Pumpkins are cheery and plump and orange. It’s tough for me to take them seriously enough to believe that anyone could possibly construe a shortage as devastating. Even the name—pumpkin—is irresistibly rotund and bouncy-sounding. Still, that headline got me a little worried. I have a tradition of throwing a pumpkin-carving party the weekend before Halloween. It’s always great fun to gather a group of friends together for a few hours of quality time with sharp knives and slimy pumpkin innards. What if there weren’t enough pumpkins this year?
Fortunately for pumpkin seekers, it appears that the forecast Great Pumpkin Shortage isn’t so devastating after all. If you drive through rural Vermont or stop by your local farmers’ market, you will see row upon row of happy-looking pumpkins offered up for sale. So what’s the story? Is there a pumpkin shortage or not?
To answer that question, I swung by my local farmers’ market in the Old North End of Burlington and checked in with Lauri Brewster of The Farm at Cold Spring in Milton. “It’s regional,” said Brewster. “Low-lying areas got hit hard. But we have plenty of pumpkins.”
Not all growers were so fortunate. Many suffered significant losses in the wake of Tropical Storm Irene. Mark Winslow of Winslow Farms in Pittsford reported that floodwaters destroyed about half his pumpkin crop. “Approximately 150 tons washed away. That’s $40,000 in pumpkins. Because of the loss, we are not able to deliver to our wholesale customers, though we still have an excellent crop for our farm stand.”
Montpelier’s Hunger Mountain Co-op has purchased Halloween pumpkins for over twenty years from a single grower, East Hardwick’s Riverside Farm, said produce manager Robert Kirigan. This year, about a third of Riverside Farm’s pumpkin crop was lost, so “we are a little short,” Kirigan admitted.
Despite having fewer pumpkins to satisfy demand, prices don’t seem to be any higher than usual this year. According to Kirigan, “Our pricing is the same as last year. Although normally shortages would tend to push the price up, we and Riverside Farm decided not to raise our prices. We wanted to encourage folks to buy real pumpkins, not plastic ones. And for the sake of the Earth we want them to be organic, not grown with chemicals. So holding the line on price seemed like the right thing to do.”
With fewer pumpkins around, some vendors turn to out-of-state growers to ensure fully-stocked shelves. Burlington’s City Market, though, specializes in stocking Vermont pumpkins, produce stocker Kara Brown said. “We buy them from about five different suppliers, some organic and some conventional. They’ve all definitely had a tighter supply than last year.”
Dire warnings of a pumpkin shortage hit the media a few weeks after Hurricane Irene inundated the East Coast, with news outlets including the Washington Post, CBS News, and the Wall Street Journal posting stories about the potential for a paucity of pumpkins this fall. Some pumpkin patches, like those of Winslow Farms, were destroyed outright by flooding. Even if they weren’t carried away by high water, pumpkins that sat in standing water are illegal to sell—a problem encountered by growers in Burlington’s Intervale.
Irene brought a longer-term, more insidious threat, as well. Lingering moisture in the fields created an ideal environment for the spread of a host of pumpkin diseases. Plants may not have to suffer through sore throats or stopped-up sinuses, but they can be afflicted with a wide variety of conditions including wilts, rots, and blights. Like us, they can succumb to onslaughts by bacteria, viruses, and fungi.
“It may be difficult to imagine,” write Purdue University plant pathologists Richard Latin and Karen Rane in their Identification and Management of Pumpkin Diseases, “but we receive more requests for information on pumpkin diseases and pumpkin disease control than on any other vegetable crop.”
Why pumpkins? The answer lies in what they are and how they grow. Pumpkins, of course, are squash. To a botanist, they’re members of the cucurbit family, related to cucumbers and watermelons. Most members of this plant family are vines, and pumpkins are no exception; they grow by sprawling across the ground. Their vines can lengthen by as much as six inches a day during peak growing season. This rapid growth means that pumpkin plants need rich soil and plenty of water.
The challenge is that too much water creates ideal conditions for pathogens that cause rot and decay. Particularly problematic are puddles that persist on the ground in the pumpkin patch. You probably know how disappointing it is to find a pumpkin that looks perfect from the top, but that has a big soft spot on the underside, sometimes with visible white mold. This is Phytophthora blight. The name is a mouthful, but it’s telling: “phyto” means plant in ancient Greek, and “phthora” means ruin or decay—so you can think of Phytophthora as the Plant Destroyer. There dozens of different kinds of Phytophthora; one, Phytophthora infestans, caused the Irish Potato Famine.
The species that infects pumpkins is called Phytophthora capsici, and it’s a tricky thing to fight. It used to be considered a fungus, but it has a few strange traits which have led taxonomists to reclassify it as an oomycete, in a different kingdom of life altogether. Like fungi, it spreads by producing spores. One kind, called an oospore, is round and thick-walled; it’s built to last and can persist in the soil for years. But Phytophthora’s other spore type, known as a zoospore or swimmer, is the fascinating one. Each swimmer sports two little whiplike tails that it uses to propel itself through water. The existence of these swimmers means that Phytophthora is more closely related to diatoms and marine plankton than it is to fungi.
There are other diseases that infect pumpkins, too, and many of them thrive when there’s a lot of late-season moisture, as there was this year. In fact, the susceptibility of pumpkins to disease, combined with strongly-seasonal demand (pumpkins are worth a whole lot less if they go to market on November 1), sets them up as a crop that has potential for shortages. Luckily, weather that creates ideal conditions for disease is usually localized. In any given year, there’s probably some region of the country that has a pumpkin production problem … but there are plenty of other pumpkins in the patch, if you’re willing to go a little farther afield.
That’s good news for those of us who are shopping for pumpkins, but small consolation for farmers who suffered losses during Tropical Storm Irene. “I just wish there was a real insurance program for specialty crops,” said Winslow. “We do not use the government program because our past experience is that it is completely inadequate.”