Still time to get those pumpkins

By on October 24, 2018
A father and son survey the selection at Leola Produce Market. Photo by Art Petrosemolo

A father and son survey the selection at Leola Produce Market. Photo by Art Petrosemolo

This fall, your local farm market has pumpkins, but probably not in the quantity that you are used to. Retailers are taking a careful approach this season on stocking Halloween’s iconic jack-o-lanterns.

The wild summer weather — heat, and then rain that did not want to go away — has both ripened the orange beauties but caused many to rot prematurely in the field (or sometimes look good, although soft to the touch) before farmers can harvest them.

It appears Lancaster County families might be holding off their purchase of a carving pumpkin, or pumpkins and gourds to decorate their homes, this fall until closer to the Halloween, says Brenda Hoover of Hoover’s Farm Market and Greenhouses on Erbs Bridge Road between Lititz and Ephrata. Hoover’s Farm has bins of bright orange and fancy pumpkins in front of its retail shop from September through November.

The disappointing growing season comes after a record 2017 year when the growing conditions were ideal for pumpkins and other vegetables. Because the yield is down, there have been some pumpkins shipped into the county from the midwest, where the growing season was not as wet as experienced in Lancaster County.

“We raise about half of our pumpkins on the farm,” Hoover says, “and this year have had more spoilage than usual.”

She indicates they are picking their own crop carefully and giving them a close inspection before displaying for purchase. And they are purchasing additional pumpkins, as many farm stands do, at the local produce auctions.

“But not in big quantities as we have in the past,” says Hoover. “We are purchasing some every week to be sure they are firm and will last the season.”

“It’s the wettest pumpkin season I remember,” explains Dr. Tim Elkner, a commercial horticulture educator at Penn State Extension in Lancaster.

Elkner says a number of growers, if they have the space, picked a little early this year and let their pumpkins sit for a week before they were put in bins and brought to auction.

“If the pumpkins are still hard after a week, they are probably fine through the fall,” Elkner added.

Some farmers who have direct contracts with farm markets and wholesales have either provided extra pumpkins when delivering bins to cover possible short fall with spoilage or are making partial refund payments as needed.

Mike Snyder, manager of Leola Produce Auction, is more than aware of the pumpkin problems this season. He hears it from the farmers who sell regularly at Leola each week. But, he explains prices had not spiked and were holding at their 2017 average as of mid to late September, when most farm markets and wholesalers buy for the season.

On a Wednesday at Leola Produce Auction, 100,000 pumpkins can be sold in four to five hours in sizes that fit in your palm to those that take a forklift to move. Almost all of the commercial pumpkin retailers in Lancaster County buy some variety of pumpkin at auction to sell to supplement what they grow in their own fields.

Pumpkins can be shipped up to 1,000 miles in any direction during the fall from Lancaster County to wholesalers who have contracts with local farmers or buyers who make the trip to one of the local auctions from up and down the East Coast.

For several years, one of the largest operations in the East was in Gap, where 800 acres was devoted to pumpkins in a huge commercial venture. Some 1,600 to 2,800 pumpkins can be grown on an acre depending on size with usually two to five pumpkins per plant

And pumpkins don’t end with Halloween, as here they continue to be sold through November as decorations and as a source for pumpkin pies before they are replaced with snowmen and Christmas decorations. Hogs, many times, get what’s left.

Although Pennsylvania, and especially Lancaster County, is a huge pumpkin producing region, it is not the largest in the country. That honor goes to Illinois with a $33 million industry where 12,000 of the 16,000 acres of pumpkins grown are destined for processing.

In recent years, fancy pumpkins grown in Lancaster County, and elsewhere, have become popular as decorations. They are distinguished by color and shape and have exotic names including Cotton Candy, Cinderella, Turks Head, Amish Splendor, Blue Lakota and Long Island Cheese. Designer white pumpkins, called Ghosts, burst onto the scene in the past few years, and also continue to be popular.

It is estimated there are 94 million pounds of pumpkins grown just in Pennsylvania. A pumpkin will take 90 to 120 days to mature and many times they are planted in late spring on fields that already have grown strawberries or another early crop.

In the final weeks before Halloween, everyone is looking for good weather.

“We need some sunny, cool and dry weather, especially on weekends,” says Hoover, ”and we’ll be crowded with families who want to get out into the country to buy pumpkins.”

Art Petrosemolo is a freelance feature writer and photographer who recently retired to this area from New Jersey. He welcomes reader feedback at artpetrosemolo@comcast.net.

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