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Pumpkin growers across US dealing with more extreme weather, fluctuating yields

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Posted at 10:38 AM, Oct 29, 2021
and last updated 2021-10-29 13:38:14-04

Pumpkins are symbolic of the fall season. But growers around the U.S. are running into more extreme weather, which is impacting the number of pumpkins available in certain regions.

“People have been bringing their children here for generations,” said David Reid, the president of Dave’s Pumpkins.

Reid has been providing pumpkins in northern Illinois since he was in school.

“I started this 46 years ago,” he said.

And like many farmers across the U.S. this year, he’s run into weather-related challenges with his crop.

“This year was a challenging year for growing pumpkins here in northern Illinois. It was very dry early in the season. We got just enough rain right after planting,” he said.

“Some years have been very dry,” Reid explained. “Some years have been too wet, and that's the worst for pumpkins.”

By just a matter of miles, where you grow can make all the difference.

“It makes a huge difference. Just a few miles away, you can get a lot of rain or no rain, and depending on the timing, it can make a big difference on the crop,” he said.

Just south, Abbey Farms has run into different problems.

“Last year, we had complete crop failure of our pumpkin farm, and that was because we had two and a half months of rain right at the time of planting, which just doesn't happen. So, we lost all of our crop,” said Adam Voirin, the chief operating officer at Abbey Farms. “The difficulty we ran into this year was the drought. We somehow came out OK. The pumpkins are lighter than normal.”

Voirin has been there since they started growing pumpkins 13 years ago. He said the yield each year can be drastically different.

“There’s been a lot of challenges with the weather,” he said. “I think we can say the climate is changing, the extremes are becoming more prevalent.”

That can be tough, especially for a state known for pumpkins.

“Pumpkin is actually a very important part of Illinois agriculture,” Reid said.

In 2020, Illinois produced about 35,000 pounds of pumpkins per acre. This was a significant drop from 2018, when the state produced 45,000 pounds per acre, according to stats from the USDA Economic Research Service.

“A big issue for pumpkin production is weather conditions, and depending on local weather conditions, different areas can have a great year or a hard year. And it’s not uncommon to see yields for a state to change up to 14,000 pounds,” said Gregory Astill, a research economist with the USDA Economic Research Service. “In an average year in the United States, farmers grow about 2 billion pounds of pumpkins.”

Illinois isn’t the only state dealing with extremes.

“We have a shortage of pumpkins throughout California,” said Lyra Marble, the owner of Mr. Bones Pumpkin Patch in California. “I’ve had to get pumpkins from up in Oregon, which normally those aren't great pumpkins because they get too much rain. Ironically the drought there is helping their pumpkin yield.”

Marble said the drought, supply chain problems, and other logistics impacted their business this fall.

“I’ve been doing this for over 25 years and this is the first year I can’t expect what I've always expected,” she said.

But possible solutions are in the works.

“Since the 1880s, we’ve had temperatures that are increasing,” said Alan Walters, a professor of horticulture at Southern Illinois University. “If it’s going the way it is now, it’s going to be very difficult to grow pumpkins in the future in these areas.”

Walters has been experimenting with more heat-tolerant pumpkins for the future.

“My goal is to develop some more heat-tolerant pumpkin lines that growers can have to utilize for growing pumpkins, especially in more warmer areas like the lower Midwest and upper South, where they grow a significant amount of pumpkins,” he explained. “The climate is definitely changing.”

“The genetic research that's gone into pumpkins over the 46 years, I’ve been growing them, has had a tremendous improvement in the yield and the ability for the pumpkins to be resistant,” Reid said.

“Having a fun experience at the pumpkin patch, that’s what it's about,” Marble said.

As farmers work to provide the selection and the fun that customers are used to getting, they are having to get more resilient and creative as they deal with changes in weather.

“It’s turning into more you're getting 100-year floods, or rainfall events every week. And so it's really hard to rebound from that when the ground can take it a little bit, so we’re investigating new ways of irrigation things like that to help,” Voirin said.

“Farms and those of us that are working with natural products, we are definitely some of the people on the front lines of climate change and seeing what's coming to everyone in the world,” Marble said.