ANNAPOLIS – The brilliant orange pumpkins brightening patches across Maryland are a welcome sight for farmers who struggled to raise the crop through near-record rains.
Now they’re crossing their fingers for some October sunshine.
Dry weather is good for the weekend festival season, when families visit the farm to pick a pumpkin and enjoy a hay ride.
“If it could just dry out now, I think it’s going to be fine,” said Jean Phillips, of Phillips Farm in Germantown.
Persistent summer rains, part of what may be the wettest year on record at Reagan National Airport, according to the National Weather Service, delayed planting at many farms.
Rain also dampened the work of bees that cross-pollinate the patch and spurred fungus growth, forcing farmers to slather this year’s crop with fungicide.
And while there will be fewer pumpkins this year, said Chuck Schuster, a Maryland Cooperative Extension educator in Montgomery County, there will be enough for Halloween.
“It’s not going to be a bumper crop, that’s for sure,” said Phillips, whose family has farmed in Maryland since 1649.
Still, she said, “Pumpkins are a lucrative crop.”
And the weather service is predicting good news: normal October precipitation, which would be less than half the amount of rain seen so far in September.
Phillips’ farm usually brings in about $80,000 each fall from pumpkins. Much of that money comes from weekend festivals and the ever-popular pumpkin patch.
“They come for the pumpkins, the hayride, maybe a bonfire, build a scarecrow,” Schuster said. “Nobody wants to go out on a cold damp day into a muddy field.”
Todd Butler agrees. Butler’s Orchard in Germantown operates one of the largest pumpkin patches in Maryland. The orchard grows 30 acres of pumpkins and sells 100,000 each fall.
Each October weekend, starting this Saturday, the farm holds a “pumpkin festival” with hay and pony rides, a straw maze, and, of course, trips to the patch.
The pumpkins, though a couple weeks late to mature, will be ready in time for peak festival season.
“Within a week they’ll go from green to nice bright jack-o-lantern orange,” Schuster said.
“The pumpkins are certainly a good size,” Butler said.
But not everyone was lucky with their crop.
Allan Stevenson, of Carlyle Farm in Centreville, said he’d lost his acre of pumpkins to late planting that delayed insecticide spraying, which prevented him from deploying bees to cross-pollinate.
Stevenson attended a twilight tour of an experimental pumpkin patch Thursday evening at the University of Maryland’s Wye Research and Education Center in Queenstown.
“I come here every year,” he said, inspecting rows of pumpkins.
The patch was filled with rows of pumpkins grown with varying fungicide regimes.
“I’m surprised they look as good as they do,” considering the rainy summer and the potential for fungus rot, said Caragh Fitzgerald, a Maryland Cooperative Extension educator who led the twilight tour.
Yet optimism about this year’s crop may sink among farmers if October is filled with weekend rain.
“If we get one bad weekend, we never make it up,” said Phillips.