Who’s the biggest power player in Washington right now: Lobbyists? Lawyers? A smoke-blowing campaign manager?
Nope. Right now, no one’s as hot as a pumpkin broker.
“Oh, I won’t tell you who mine is. It’s a closely kept secret,” said Bonnie Ruetenik, owner of Heather Hill Gardens in Fairfax Station.
The pumpkin market is a roller coaster ride of gambling, brokering, dealing and even presidential influence.
Local farmers can count on cashing in on Americans’ jack-o’-latern obsession every October. But plant too many, and the price of the big, heavy, challenging-to-grow gourd plummets.
That happened last year. There was a nationwide pumpkin bumper crop, and prices dropped, said John Pearson, who is a buyer for Keany Produce in Landover. This is the time of year when he is in demand, his name and number as coveted as Rogaine by hard-luck farmers with bald pumpkin patches. This time of year, he turns into a pumpkin broker.
Because of last year’s bumper crop, a lot of farmers turned over large swaths of their pumpkin fields to corn and soybeans, Pearson said.
But the Northeast was pounded by rain during the planting season in the spring, then record rain again when Hurricane Irene hit at the start of harvest. As rain soaked the fields, the pumpkins began rotting in puddles, and many local farms lost upwards of 75 percent of their crop.
“Our farmer’s going to Lancaster County to try and get more today,” a retailer in Maryland told me when I began calling around to pumpkin patches.
Ruetenik said her secret broker’s been bringing her gourds from as far away as Kansas.
Keany Produce has been getting pumpkins from Ohio and Indiana. “Without a doubt, that’s unusual,” Pearson said.
Pearson has been supplying restaurants, hotels and retail places with pumpkins for years. But this is one of the first times that farmers whose fields were decimated have come to him for help, too.
And there’s a twist this year.
Fickle, fashion-forward Americans aren’t satisfied with just your standard orange globe anymore.
Turns out farmers are also trying to feed a voracious market for designer pumpkins with names like Cotton Candy, Fairytale, Cinderella, Casper and Full Moon.
These gourds are white or bicolored, often with exaggerated grooves and curves — “you know, so they look like Cinderella’s carriage,” said Shelby Watson, who works at Montpelier Farms in Upper Marlboro.
“There’s been a huge trend toward those in the last couple years. This year especially,” Watson said. “We ran out of them fast. And we didn’t realize how much people love them, at first. We had one weird-colored one and kind of stuck it in the patch, and it went right away.”
This is where the president comes in. Right after he and first lady Michelle Obama made an impromptu stop at Wood’s Orchards in Hampton, Va., this month and loaded up a cart with a couple giant, white pumpkins called Full Moon, the local patches and orchards were flooded with calls from people asking for the same kind.
“We sold out of those even weeks before that happened,” said Kim Prince at Krop’s Crops in Great Falls.
Back in Hampton, Bill Wood has been besieged by requests for the large, white pumpkins the Obamas picked at his farm stand.
“They were popular last year, but this year, because of the president, ma’am, we’re swamped,” he said. “I’ve got a wedding party coming today that wants 12 of the white ones for table decorations.”
His operation is thriving this year because the family double-cropped, planting pumpkins on their plastic-covered, high-ridged fields. They softened the vines as the hurricane bore down on them so that they weren’t brittle and likely to snap in high winds. The high ridges kept the pumpkins out of puddles.
Three generations of growing pumpkins, and this one turned out to be the fairytale year for Wood’s Orchards.
“It’s quite an honor,” he said as he talked about the president’s visit and then paused for so long that I wondered if he was okay. “Sorry,” he finally said, “I still get a little emotional about it.”