WASHINGTON – A flawless, locally grown jack-o-lantern will be tougher to find this Halloween, as bad weather cut Maryland pumpkin production by about half, a specialist said.
The drought and heat, followed by the heavy rains of hurricanes Dennis and Floyd, caused the state’s pumpkin harvest to fall 40 to 50 percent below normal, said Charles McClurg, a vegetable specialist with the University of Maryland College of Agriculture and Natural Resources.
“Everything happened this year,” said Ralph Harcum, who lost about half the crop on his family’s 1,500-acre pumpkin farm in Hebron. “It was too dry, too hot, then we had Floyd.”
The extremes of heat and moisture also hurt other crops, such as tomatoes, McClurg said. In general, “the internal quality of vegetables was not as good,” he said.
Maryland has about 261 pumpkin farms scattered throughout the state, according to the 1997 agricultural census, but Baltimore and Harford counties are the top producers.
The pumpkin shortage has caused headaches for retailers in some parts of the state.
“It’s a mixed bag this year,” said Mike Sullivan, group director of produce with Super Fresh grocery stores in Baltimore.
Eastern Shore pumpkins were softer and generally inadequate, he said, while pumpkins from Central Maryland, although in “decent shape,” arrived later than usual.
American Plant Food, a nursery in Bethesda, has had fewer suppliers this year and pumpkins are harder to get, said Joan Donahue.
“Some people are not able to fill our orders this year,” she said. “But we are getting them.”
Some carving pumpkins are smaller than normal and the store is having trouble getting unusual varieties, such white, Indian and miniature pumpkins. “A lot of those are not as plenty,” Donahue said.
Some popular varieties, such the standard Howden pumpkin, are smaller because their buds are more sensitive to heat, McClurg said. When pumpkins were flowering in July, temperatures topped 100 degrees, when low 90s or 80s would be ideal. Although pumpkins need a lot of water to grow, excess water facilitates fungal diseases like the powdery mildew.
Those growing problems meant Chevy Chase homemaker Dana Meyers had to make three pumpkin-shopping trips before she found just the right ones for her baby’s first Halloween. After visiting two local grocery stores, she found their supplies to be too small and low in quality.
“They didn’t have many left,” Meyers said. “And they were really dirty, pretty small and scrawny.”
She had better luck on her third attempt, leaving a Bethesda nursery with 16-pound and 24-pound pumpkins. She plans to carve those, with the help of her husband, Peter, to decorate the house for 12-week-old daughter Lucy’s first Halloween.