Various factors pushing prices on pumpkins upward this fall

Mike Garrett, a longtime Lawrence truck farmer, figures his pumpkin yields are only 25 percent of what they should be by now on his 16-acre field in Linwood. Weather conditions and economic factors have not added up to a good year for the autumn favorite. Enlarge photo

September 17, 2008

Carving jack-o'-lanterns likely will cost more this fall, thanks to a ghoulish brew of meteorological and economic factors that's putting a bit of a scare into some of the most experienced observers of the Halloween season.

"Pumpkin prices are definitely going to be up this year," said Angela Britt, of Britt Farms in Manhattan, which supplies Hy-Vee in Lawrence. "It's a combination of the rain and the lack of the heat and the fuel prices just skyrocketing. We went up 10 to 15 percent, overall, with our prices for this year."

And the growing season isn't over yet, with each successive rain dampening hopes for recovery of the colorful crop: from ornamental mini-pumpkins to the appropriately named Big Max, which can bloat to 100 pounds or more.

Yellow leaves, insect damage and rot already have taken their toll, and it's still more than six weeks until Halloween.

"I don't think it'll get too much worse. We'll just have to see how the disease sets in, and how it progresses," said Britt, whose 80-acre field typically produces about 2.4 million pounds of pumpkins. "We'll still be able to be shipping pretty good quality because we grow so many. But we'll just have to leave that many more (bad ones) in the field."

Jennifer Smith, horticulture agent for K-State Research and Extension in Douglas County, said such reports were logical, given growing conditions this year.

"With the cooler weather this summer, all the vine crops are having problems," she said. "Watermelons and cantaloupe have been having problems, not growing well. They like heat and humidity, and they like the roots to dry out. And we've had so much rain, that hasn't happened very much. :

"Most of the plants hadn't put down good root systems. I can see a definite possibility of having a smaller pumpkin crop this year."

But pockets of hope are managing to grow out of the moist soil.

Pam Hamill, owner of Hamill's Country Garden Greenhouse south of Baldwin, started off the season in a state of sheer fear. A brush-burning accident, followed by a couple of other minor setbacks, kept Hamill and her helpers from getting their pumpkins planted by June 1, the usual deadline for a timely crop.

"I was just sick about it when it happened," she said. "I was in an absolute panic."

But by putting off planting until June 17, Hamill's one-acre pumpkin patch actually eluded some timing problems brought on by rainy weather and cool temperatures.

"It's ended up being great for us," Hamill said. "We have nice big ones, and they just look really good. They're ripening up faster than they normally do."

Hamill will be charging customers 35 cents a pound this season - the same price that will be offered at the pick-your-own Schaake Pumpkin Patch just east of Lawrence, where rising costs for fuel, chemicals and feed led to the increase of nearly 17 percent.

"We like to keep it reasonable enough that it's fun, family entertainment," said Janet Schaake, who conceded that this season's price increase likely wouldn't be enough to counter rising expenses. "I don't want it to get out of sight."

At least the pumpkins on the 25-acre patch - planted about a week later than normal - still look good, Schaake said. Now it's just a matter of waiting for rains to stop, to prevent pumpkins from rotting in the field.

"They may be floating right now," she said Friday.

Mike Garrett doesn't have as much to float. The longtime truck farmer - selling from the site, across from Lawrence Municipal Airport, that his great-grandfather set up in 1867 - figures his yields are only 25 percent of what they should be by now on his 16-acre field in Linwood.

The elements simply have conspired to keep production down, just as demand for such homegrown products continues to rise.

"The pie pumpkins and the squash and the itty-bitty gourds are doing great," Garrett said. "But the big pumpkins, I can't tell how they're doing. This has been the craziest summer."

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