The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

Local News

October 12, 2011

Slim pickings in the pumpkin patch

CARL JUNCTION, Mo. — When Tammy Fredrickson and her family harvested their 20 acres of pumpkins this fall, it wasn’t enough to fill the bed of a pickup.

“We had a total crop failure,” she said earlier this week, just days after opening Fredrickson Farms for the annual monthlong season of agri-tourism. “We’ve been doing this for 14 years, and it’s the first time we’ve lost everything.”

The farm’s land is dry. The Fredricksons don’t irrigate.

“We saw the writing on the wall early in the summer: Whenever you’re hitting 100 degrees, you can’t put enough water on a pumpkin plant to keep it going,” Fredrickson said.

Her plight is not unlike that of other pumpkin growers across the nation. Northeastern states, such as New York and Pennsylvania, were hit hard by rain. The reach of Hurricane Irene wiped out many types of produce from Delaware to Maine.

In Georgia, the problem was drought.

In Southwest Missouri and Southeast Kansas, the challenge was below-average rainfall amounts and at least 33 days of temperatures in excess of 100 degrees.

With temperatures in the 90s, the first 10 days of June — when the plants are in their infancy — were the hottest for the period since 1934. The month of July, when the plants should be setting fruit, was the hottest July since 1980.

Fredrickson said pumpkin plants go into survival mode during such weather, focusing energy solely on vine growth. Any plants that do produce fruit will abort them when temperatures exceed 92 degrees for very long.

“Of course, they’re blooming like crazy now, but it’s too late,” she said. “Old Jack Frost will be here before too long, and the party is over for everybody.”

Changing business

The lack of pumpkins has changed the way growers are doing business at area pumpkin patches this fall.

Laura Wood, who with her family has owned Wood Farms Pumpkin Patch south of Chicopee, Kan., for seven years, planted only what she could water by hand in indoor trays. The crop normally covers four acres.

“We don’t have irrigation systems, and my thought was, ‘Why waste a whole bunch of seeds?’” said Wood.

The six trays, each with about 70 pots, produced 400 plants.

Once the pumpkin plants sprouted, Wood transferred them outdoors to soil that her husband, Rich, had carefully worked and reworked with manure. The couple and their two children watered the plants morning and night.

“What I grew this year did excellent,” Laura Wood said. “The jack-o’-lantern pumpkins were huge and beautiful, and there weren’t as many bugs because of minimal ground moisture.”

But 400 pumpkins were not nearly enough for the several hundred visitors who visit the patch each weekend throughout October.

“It’s not even a fourth of what I normally have,” said Laura Wood. “We’re not even halfway through the season, but we’re through half of what we grew, so we had to buy from a family operation in Lincoln, Neb.”

Likewise, Fredrickson had to order a tractor-trailer load from Michigan that filled 60 bins.

“But you pay an extra $5 per bin this year,” Fredrickson said, “because of the supply and demand.”

She said she doesn’t plan to pass the price increase on to customers.

“I really believe I think I can come out OK, but there’s a fine line,” she said. “I’m crossing my fingers.”

Laura Wood said the higher cost would mean a slight increase on her pumpkins.

“Last year, we sold jack-o’-lanterns for $5, and this year we marked them as $6,” she said. Because the trucked-in pumpkins are perishable and begin to get soft more quickly than vine-cut pumpkins, she’s offering a bin of pumpkins — marked “Help, take us home quick!” — for $1 each.

Fredrickson hopes she’ll sell all that she ordered in a timely fashion and that it doesn’t adversely affect the farm’s bottom line.

“We still have pumpkins,” she said. “But it was a struggle.”

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