Amid pumpkin shortage, growers hope for a dryer summer

By Matt Coates
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Six cans: That's the sum total of the 100-Percent Pure Pumpkin inventory at Libby's, the company that dominates the U.S. market.

And that, in turn, has limited consumer options before the start of another high-use season. A couple of 29-ounce cans of Libby's are going for nearly $30 on eBay. A meager supply of organic canned pumpkin is available in Washington area stores.

With pumpkin-planting season about three weeks away, you could get ready to grow your own. But the best bet might be to start praying for sunshine in pumpkinland, or central Illinois, source of nearly 95 percent of all American-grown pumpkins that are commercially prepped, cooked and canned.

By harvest time late last summer, after three growing seasons with too much rain and not enough sun, the rich Illinois soil could take no more. Tractors got "buried up to their axles in mud," said Libby's spokeswoman Roz O'Hearn, "and we couldn't harvest all the pumpkin we had grown." Well before Thanksgiving, the company had dispatched its last shipment, a disappointing end to a second year of shortages. Most other brands grown and processed in the same area soon ran out as well.

Trying to head off another shortage, Libby's, a subsidiary of Nestle responsible for 87 percent of the canned pumpkin sold from September to December, has added crop acreage this year. O'Hearn said she expects the company's canned pumpkin to return in September, "as long as Mother Nature is cooperative."

This year got off to "a much better start" than last, says Illinois state climatologist Jim Angel, with "warmer-than-normal temperatures through April and almost normal precipitation." But May was cooler and wetter than usual, with rainfall a worrisome 1.5 inches above normal on the fields where Libby's pumpkin seed will be planted this month.

Pumpkins are cucurbits, the fruit of a herbaceous annual plant of the gourd family that thrives in hot, dry conditions and includes squash, melons, watermelons and cucumbers. Bill Shoemaker of the University of Illinois' St. Charles Horticulture Research Center says his state is a great place to grow canning pumpkins. Along with usually ideal heat and rainfall, "we have both sandy soils and rich prairie soils," he says, which allows overlapping harvests. "The sandy soil sites produce a crop much earlier in the season," so harvesting and processing can begin while a second crop of rich-soil pumpkins is still growing.

The fate of this season's crop will be decided largely by the dryness of the soil, which Angel says is much improved despite recent rains. That is hopeful news for farmland that has tried to absorb more than 100 inches of precipitation, nearly two feet above average, over the past couple of years and that in some areas remains unusable because the groundwater has risen above the soil line.

"It's amazing. We actually have lakes where we didn't have lakes before," Shoemaker says. He worries that three seasons of rainy, cool weather have created "the perfect environment" for resurgent pumpkin disease organisms. "That's been the primary reason we've had problems with production," he says. "If we could just have a nice warm, dry season, we'd have a much better year."

That is certainly Libby's wish. It controls more than half of the Illinois acreage on which canning pumpkins are grown. It has contracts with independent farmers and producers supplying the seeds to grow a variety of Dickinson pumpkin, the oval-shaped, buff-colored Libby Select, on some 5,000 acres (nearly eight square miles) near the company's Morton, Ill., processing plant and cannery. The state's second-biggest processor, Seneca Foods, which produces the Stokely's and Festal brands and various private labels, is nearby.

In the Washington area, signs are not encouraging. Farmer's Market Organic Pumpkin, a small Oregon brand, can be found at Giant, Harris Teeter and some Whole Foods Market locations, but its more watery consistency warrants recipe adaptations for bakers used to the Libby's puree. At the Magruder's store at the Kemp Mill Shopping Center in Silver Spring, shoppers looking to make a pumpkin soup or spicy pie will find a terse e-mail from a distributor taped to a shelf where the canned pumpkin used to be: "We will not be back in pumpkin until this year's harvest."

If we are lucky. The Illinois weather might be showing some improvement, but little else has changed among the unusual, if not unique, circumstances that brought on the pumpkin shortage. Growing and processing remain highly concentrated, and one state and one company so dominate the business that a disruption in the annual cycle that takes pumpkins from patch to processor to grocery can cause a popular product to disappear from store shelves for nearly a year. It could easily happen again.

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