Heavy rains in September destroyed much of the Washington area's pumpkin crop, forcing many families to scour suprmarkets and garden supply centers for pumpkins this weekend, only days before Halloween.
Yesterday, prospective jack-o'-lantern makers and pie bakers drove along Wisconsin Avenue NW and throughout the suburbs, conducting their Great Pumpkin Hunt. Few found pumpkins. Those who did often had to settle for mushy pumpkins.
"This has been a really bad year," said Kim Durham, 17, a clerk at Johnson's Flower Center in the 4000 block of Wisconsin Avenue NW, where the pumpkin business ordinarily thrives. "This year we didn't get nearly as many pumpkins as we usually do, and then 60 percent of them rotted away and we had to throw them out."
Durham said the store received only about 2,000 pumpkins -- one-sixth of the pumkins it usually has available to sell.
Farmers in Maryland, where most of the area's pumpkin crop originates, blame the shortage on the wet, humid weather in September that rotted the pumpkins off the vines. The heavy rains also washed fungicides off the pumpkins, the farmers say, making them more susceptible to fungus and insects. And last week's hot, summerlike weather made many of the pumpkins rot in bins outside stores.
"Farmers I've talked to haven't seen a summer this bad in 10 or 20 years," said George Butler of Butler Orchards near Damascus. "No matter what, it goes back to the rains."
Sheridan Gardens on Old Georgetown Road in Bethesda was one of the few stores that had any pumpkins left. About two dozen pumpkins, many of them damaged or rotting, lay on the ground. Men, women and children and children picked over them.
"Daddy, this one's pretty but it has a hole in it, exclaimed Amiee Calderone, 7, of Chevy Chase."We can make the face here," she said, pointing to the hole.
Her father, Richard Calderone, was not impressed. "They're all rotten," he said. "Maybe we'll get a plastic one."
But Michael Calderone, age 6, did not want a plastic pumpkin. Eventually, the Calderones found an odd-shaped pumpkin that did not have any holes in it. Michael happly carried it toward the station wagon. $"It's green and distorted and it has warts," said Richard Calderone, as he opened the car doors. "But we're very happy to have it."
Kassie Economos of Bethesda shook her head as she eyed the pumpkins on the ground. "If you buy a mushy one they just get mushier," she sighed. About 10 minutes later, she left the pumpkin pile, triumphant, carrying an angular-shaped gourd.
"At least this one's solid," she shrugged. "I'm not buying it for its looks. I want to make pumpkin pie."
Meanwhile, Baird MacGuineas, weary from his attempts to find pumpkins in two stores that didn't have any, examined the pumpkin that his daughter, Maya, 11, had chosen. It was a foot high and elliptical and it had only one hole in it.
"This is an insurance policy in case we don't find anything else," he said, as he handed the clerk a dollar.
George Butler, who plants about 15 to 20 acres of pumpkins annually on his Damascus farm, says he can remember years when "the ground was orange with pumpkins." This year, poor growning weather has reduced his crop by a third.
In addition to the heavy September rains, Butler said, much of the crop fell victim to a series to abrupt temperature shifts that followed. "Pumpkins will take a fair amount of abuse if well cared for," he said, "but they don't stand a lot of variance in temperature."
Variance in temperature is just what the Washington area has had lately, with snow earlier this month and stretches of 80-degree days alternating with periods of near freezing weather.
And there appears to be little prospect of rectifying the shortage here with shipments from other areas. Local suppliers say that shipping expenses for pumpkins from the Midwest, where the crop is healthy, would make purchase prices here prohibitive.
The shortage of farm-grown pumpkins led some families to purchase last-minute plastic substitutes. At the G.C. Murphy Co. store on Wisconsin Avenue, for example, boxes of costumes lay on the shelves, but no plastic pumpkins were left.
"We had lots of them, but the last of them sold last night," said one clerk.