Time is ripe but pumpkins aren't

As Halloween nears, Md. harvest has been reduced by summer weather

October 12, 2006|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,Sun Reporter

Could this be the year of the green jack-o'-lantern?

Typically during early October, visitors to the pumpkin patch at Andrew Lohr's farm in Harford County look out over fields filled with vibrant orange gourds ready to be picked, carved and placed amid Halloween decorations.

But while a group of schoolchildren visiting the Churchville farm had the run of plenty of bright orange pumpkins, they also stumbled upon many others that were dark green, pale blue or flesh colored.

Not only is the color off schedule this year, but the yield of the Maryland pumpkin harvest is down, too, a result of heavy rains in spring that delayed planting and a heat wave in August that thwarted pollination.

"Pumpkins were planted with ungodly heavy rain - 17 inches in one week," Lohr said, recalling June downpours. "That's great for the reservoir but not for the fields."

With a harvest expected to be about 25 percent less than last year's, according to estimates by farmers and state agriculture officials, some sellers have been forced to bring in pumpkins from other sources to ensure ample supply.

"I am hearing about pumpkin shortages now, and this is the crunch time," said Buddy Bowling, executive director of the Maryland Agriculture Commission, a panel that advises the Agriculture Department. "You have the Halloween decorating business and then there's pumpkin-chucking competitions."

Lohr's Orchard has about 10 acres of pumpkins of all shapes, sizes and colors. In a typical year, an acre yields about 20,000 pounds. This year, Lohr expects about 12,000 pounds per acre.

And the growth process has slowed, leaving unripe pumpkins dotting the landscape much later in the season than usual.

"You plant them so they turn orange at just the right time," said Brad Milton, a Harford County farmer who tends 13 acres of pumpkins that also range in color this fall. "This was a scary season with all the rain and heat. Last year was great. The pumpkins were orange at the right time, big and hard."

The rains washed away fertilizer and forced farmers to spray and re-spray to combat mildew and diseases, Milton said.

In August, just as the blossoms emerged, the hot, dry spell hit and stymied the bees that pollinate the plants.

"We are all dependent on bees for pollination," said Judy Harlan, who runs Belvedere Farms in Fallston. "Without them, there won't be any pumpkins."

Milton keeps about 25 beehives and brings in more to pollinate the blossoms in August. Timing is critical to transferring pollen from male to female blossoms, he said. The flowers open in the early morning and close by 11 a.m.

"You have a four- to five-hour window, and to make a perfect pumpkin, the flower has to be visited eight to 10 times by different bees," Milton said. "In the heat, bees don't fly, the flowers drop off and we lose the product."

Lohr put it more succinctly:

"Bees don't like bleak, hazy or hot," he said. "If they haven't pollinated the blossoms by 11 a.m., that's it."

Even large farms expect a smaller harvest this year, though some farmers are reporting that the crop is making a late-season rally.

"Production is down a little, but the quality is good," said Marjorie Baugher, whose family runs Baugher's Orchard in Westminster and has 65 acres planted in pumpkins. "We lost growing time and some pumpkins got a late start, but now they just want to grow, grow, grow."

Baugher's is shipping pumpkins by the truckload to farmers' markets in the area, and some operators have placed orders for more to meet the demand through the end of the month, she said.

The pumpkin business is growing. In 2003, Maryland farmers planted 1,500 acres that produced nearly 10 million pounds of pumpkins valued at nearly $2 million. By 2004, the last year for which statistics are available, 2,100 acres yielded about 22 million pounds valued at $3.3 million, according to the Maryland Department of Agriculture.

"Tons of people want tons of pumpkins for decorating, carving and eating," Milton said.

Lohr anticipates a significant drop in the harvest from last year, but he expects to have enough pumpkins to satisfy the thousands who scour his fields each fall.

Among the most regular visitors to Lohr's farm each fall are school groups. The preschoolers from New Covenant Christian School in Abingdon who came out one day this week climbed on a hay-filled wagon hitched to a tractor and took a spin around the pumpkin patch.

"I wanted an orange one and I found a good green one," said Jacob Buler, a 3-year-old Abingdon resident, as he grasped both pumpkins while chomping on an apple he had picked from a nearby tree.

Three-year-old twins Abigail and Ethan Ingoglia were a study in contrasts. While Abigail complained that the pumpkins "were all too dirty," Ethan emerged from the patch with vines and soil on his clothing and a smile on his face.

"Of course, it's dirty. It lives in a field," Jennifer Ingoglia of Abingdon told her daughter. "Your brother doesn't care."

Despite the prevalence of the green gourds, all is not lost, farmers say. If a customer finds a pumpkin that is the perfect size and shape but the wrong color, growers offer assurance that it will come around before Halloween.

"Give them a week on the front porch in the sun," Baugher said.

mary.gail.hare@baltsun.com

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