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Pumpkin growers hit a tough patch

September 24, 1999|By LAURA ERNDE

At one point this summer, the largest pumpkin grower in Washington County thought he wouldn't have any pumpkins this fall for decorating porches or carving jack-o'-lanterns.

The same summer drought that withered corn, hay and soybeans reached its shriveled hand into the area's pumpkin patches.

Late summer rains saved his 50-acre field near Downsville, Page Houser said.

Houser is happy with the results, even though his estimated 100,000 pumpkins are only one-quarter of his typical harvest.

"I'll take a light crop with good quality any day. People are incredibly particular about their pumpkins," he said.

Most Tri-State area pumpkin growers are taking a hit because of the drought, agricultural extension agents said.

"I've talked to some who have 25 acres and not picked a one," said Eric Vorodi, an extension agent in Franklin County, Pa.

Scarce pumpkins have driven up the price and led to the cancellation of at least one pumpkin festival, a fund-raiser for Renfrew Museum and Park in Waynesboro, Pa.

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Wholesale prices are running 25 to 35 percent higher than normal, which will be reflected at the cash register, Vorodi said.

Buyers will have to pay a premium for really large pumpkins weighing 30 pounds or more, he said.

"There will be pumpkins; they just won't be abundant," said Bill Marker, who grows about three acres of pumpkins at his produce farm in Gapland.

Many produce growers irrigate produce such as cantaloupes, tomatoes and peppers. But few irrigate pumpkins.

"Because pumpkins don't normally require irrigation, it's hard to justify the cost," Vorodi said.

Growers who didn't irrigate lost 80 percent of their pumpkin crop. But even growers who irrigated had losses of up to 50 percent, he said.

One exception is Ridgefield Farms near Harpers Ferry, W.Va., where owner Lee Greiner's irrigated seven-acre pumpkin patch is overflowing.

Prices are up about 5 cents to 35 cents a pound, he said.

Martin and Jeri Huffer in Middletown, Md., also irrigated their 10-acre pumpkin patch, which has produced pumpkins up to 60 pounds.

"When kids get out there they want to find the biggest one they can find, even if they can't carry it," Jeri Huffer said.

Despite his shortage, Houser plans to have thousands of pumpkins for customers to choose from at his farm. The price will be two for $5.

Houser won't have as many pumpkins to sell wholesale to grocery chains. Those retailers might have to bring in their pumpkins from other parts of the country, extension agents said.

While some people might be tempted to get pumpkins early, they should keep in mind how long they want them to last. Halloween is still more than a month away, said Donald Schwartz, extension agent for Washington County.

The pumpkins are still susceptible to diseases, especially if this fall's weather is wet, he said.

Orchardist Don Harding's own health has hampered the fall harvest at his farm near Waynesboro more than the drought has. He recently underwent emergency heart bypass surgery.

Harding is more concerned about his main crop, which is apples, than the three acres of pumpkins he planted, especially since the size and quality of the pumpkins are average to poor.

The pumpkin losses shouldn't hurt the Tri-State area farming industry much since pumpkins aren't a big commodity. Most are grown on produce farms or by orchardists who like to have them available during the harvest season.

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