For Md. pumpkin farms, the rush is on

As Halloween nears, farmers in much of the state give thanks for a good crop, but Eastern Shore farms deal with shortfall

  • Sarah Walsh, Annapolis, and her son, Carter Walsh, 3, look for pumpkins in the Clark's Elioak Farm pumpkin patch.
Sarah Walsh, Annapolis, and her son, Carter Walsh, 3, look for… (Kim Hairston, Baltimore…)
October 13, 2013|By Jamie Smith Hopkins, The Baltimore Sun

Nothing says Halloween like a pumpkin, and dozens of Maryland farmers are grateful for that.

The orange harbingers of fall bring crowds to farm stands and pick-your-own fields. They're the centerpiece around which some farms have built themselves into "agritourism" destinations, with hayrides, corn mazes and other kid-friendly activities.

Now the crush is on. And in much of the state — fortunately for farmers — the pumpkin harvest is good this year.

"The dry weather we had in August and September were great for the pumpkins," said Brad Milton, a farmer who owns Brad's Produce in Harford County with wife Karin.

But in parts of the Eastern Shore, ill-timed rain and diseases like downy mildew reduced the yield.

"It's very short supply this year," said Sudeep A. Mathew, a Dorchester County-based agricultural agent for the University of Maryland Extension.

Pumpkins aren't a major Maryland crop. They accounted for just 1,500 acres of the 2 million farmed in the state in 2011, the most recent data, according to the Maryland Department of Agriculture.

But for some farmers who grow them, pumpkins represent a key part of a key season.

"I'm open from April through the beginning of November, and I do over half of my business in the month of October," said Martha Anne Clark, owner of Clark's Elioak Farm in Ellicott City, which has a petting farm, a pine-tree maze, a "cow train" of bovine-decorated cars pulled by a tractor and — of course — a pumpkin patch.

Said Lynn Moore, president of Larriland Farm in Woodbine: "It's kind of like Christmas is to the department stores."

Clark grows her own pumpkins and buys from other local farmers to supplement, because many people come to her farm on Route 108 in search of one. She figures she sells 20,000 to 30,000 each fall to families and field-trip groups.

"It's a lot of pumpkins," she said.

Locally, most farmers charge by the pound for jack-o'-lantern varieties meant for carving. Fifty to 60 cents or so per pound is typical.

Gaver Farm in Mount Airy has kept its price at 49 cents a pound for four years, though 2011 was a struggle. Hurricane Irene flooded fields that season.

"We lost 4 acres of our pumpkins," said farm co-owner Lisa Gaver, who is grateful for the bumper crop this season. "They just picked themselves up and floated away. … We ran out that year."

That's the reality of growing pumpkins, like any farming: The wrong amount of rain can doom a crop.

Mathew, the agricultural agent, said the early part of the pumpkin growing season was too wet for a number of farmers in the lower Eastern Shore. Pumpkins also have fallen prey to more diseases in the last few years, he said. And some farmers made the financial decision to skip the crop this year, calculating that the price they could get wasn't worth the expense.

"So everybody's looking for pumpkins," Mathew said. Some farmers who sell directly to consumers have turned to Pennsylvania growers for replacements.

But Henry Oakley said his farm near Salisbury made out just fine — he has more than enough for customers at Oakley's Farm Market and sold some wholesale to folks who ended up short.

He knows he's lucky. A farm just 7 miles down the road from his lost a good bit of its pumpkins. And rain earlier this year wiped out half his watermelons and three-quarters of his tomatoes. So it's a good thing he has a fall crop to spare.

Pumpkins — and the farm activities built around them — are a mainstay for Oakley. He estimated that October and the spring strawberry season together account for nearly two-thirds of his business.

Even in the depths of the recession, as customers pulled back on discretionary spending, they still came out for pumpkins.

"It is a wholesome, fun activity to do as a family, and not that expensive," Oakley said. "A good way to get your feet in the dirt, so to speak, so you can see what's going on with your country cousins, you know what I mean?"

That's definitely part of what drives customers to him and other farmers in the fall, as opposed to a supermarket with a crate full of the gourds. Only 2 percent of Americans live on farms, and plenty of people in the other 98 percent like the idea of spending an occasional afternoon on one.

They're paying for the experience — the verdant fields, the rumble of a tractor, the weathered barn — as much as for the pumpkins. And some linger to get their money's worth.

"We've had some people spend hours and hours looking for the perfect pumpkin," said Milton of with Brad's Produce.

Some farms draw people in with the ag version of an amusement park. Gaver Farm in Mount Airy has a farm animal "arena," an obstacle course, a straw mountain, bale roping and play tractors — to name just a few of its more than 40 fall activities.

The farm's motto on its website: "We Harvest Fun!"

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