Minnesota pumpkin growers have taken a hit because of the drought, which might mean smaller jack-o'-lanterns, higher prices and less supply on this pumpkin-buying weekend.
In five years of raising Cinderella pumpkins at the southern end of Scott County, this year was the very worst for Susan Mecredy.
"I grow a type of pumpkin that's flatter, more oval, more carriage-like," she said. "I planted at the end of May, and they didn't even germinate till the end of July. The drought was so very bad, and then a bug came along. I lost my entire crop."
Her story, pumpkin experts say, is sadly typical of a year in which Minnesota's crop may have slumped by 50 percent from last year's.
"In central Minnesota, where the drought was really bad, the pumpkins just completely burned off," said Terry Nennich, the University of Minnesota's regional extension educator for commercial vegetable and small-fruit production.
"I'm hearing a tremendous amount of concern from home gardeners, growing for themselves, who didn't get anything," he said.
Though the drought is just a memory today in the metro area, he and others say, pumpkin buyers are likely to feel an echo effect on this, the prime pumpkin-buying weekend of the year, in the form of higher prices, smaller jack-o'-lanterns, and perhaps less supply.
"Local pumpkins are much more difficult to find this year," said Jim Dalton, general manager of Minnesota Harvest Apple Orchard, in Jordan, who moves 50,000 pounds of pumpkins in the fall. "Last year we had two suppliers, one just down the road from here and another in Iowa. This year the local supplier just didn't have any product for us."
That didn't wind up affecting pricing, he said. "But there's not a whole lot left right now, and we don't know if we'll get any more in before this weekend," a key moment for pumpkin sales. "After Halloween," he added, "no one wants pumpkins."
Minnesota is not a gigantic pumpkin producer. The number of acres harvested across the state did increase from 1,814 in 1997 to 2,593 in 2002, the years of the two most recent national censuses of agriculture.
But that's still just a fraction of Pumpkin Central, the state of Illinois, with its 12,296 acres in 2002. By 2006, Illinois alone was producing nearly half the 1 billion pounds raised in all the major pumpkin-producing states put together.
Minnesota retailers can and do turn to Illinois, Iowa and other nearby states for supplies, though with high gas prices, the cost of shipping them from farther away can affect the price.
For Gary Pahl, raising 150 acres of pumpkins this year on fields in Apple Valley, Rosemount and Farmington for buyers such as Cub Foods, 2007 has been one thing after another.
"Every year," he sighed, "presents different issues. After not having any rain for two and a half months during the summer, we had 45 days of rain! So the size is smaller with no rain early, but then the stems go to hell because of too much rain. Luckily we've had a late fall, with no hard freezes, so that part has been great."
The most dramatic effect this year, he said, has been upon buyers of decorative pumpkins who want them supersized. "People want to go to the garden center and find a larger-sized pumpkin, and those just weren't there this year."
Some retailers downplay the effect on consumers, saying they have plenty of nice pumpkins at prices that haven't risen all that much from last year. And without detailed statistics available yet, experts caution, it's tough to really get a handle on exactly what's happening with pumpkins.
"Certain areas of the state did have poor pumpkin production," said Brian Erickson, of the Minnesota Department of Agriculture. "But even in the central part of the state, those with irrigation did fine."
Nennich, based in Crookston, is not so sure.
"Most irrigation systems are set up for supplemental watering," he said. "When you get a year like this one, so close to zero moisture for so long, they can't keep up. Either the wells won't take it, or they can't get the equipment around fast enough. And when you also grow berries, and other crops that on a per-acre basis are much more valuable, where are you going to put that water?
"Pumpkins are annuals, but strawberries and raspberries are good for five to 10 years, and asparagus for 20, so you are not going to let them die."
That diversity of crops, though -- and diversity even within the pumpkin category itself -- helps growers themselves get through bad years.
At Cherith Farms, in Belle Plaine, Susan Mecredy says, though that the Cinderellas never got to the ball, the decorative mini-pumpkins, 3 inches across, came through just fine.
"I have lots of those."
David Peterson 612-673-4440