Northeastern states are facing a jack-o'-lantern shortage this Halloween after Hurricane Irene destroyed hundreds of pumpkin patches across the region, farmers say.
Wholesale prices have doubled in some places as farmers nurse their surviving pumpkin plants toward a late harvest. Some farmers are trying to buy pumpkins from other regions to cover orders.
"I think there's going to be an extreme shortage of pumpkins this year," said Darcy Pray, owner of Pray's Family Farms in Keeseville, in upstate New York. "I've tried buying from people down in the Pennsylvania area, I've tried locally here and I've tried reaching across the border to some farmers over in the Quebec area. There's just none around."
Hurricane Irene raked the Northeast in late August, bringing torrents of rain that overflowed rivers and flooded fields along the East Coast and into southern Canada. Pray saw his entire crop, about 15,000 to 20,000 pumpkins, washed into Lake Champlain.
But pumpkin farmers had been having a difficult year even before the storm. Heavy rains this spring meant many farms had to postpone planting for two or three weeks, setting back the fall harvest, said Jim Murray, owner of the Applejacks Orchard in Peru, N.Y.
A late harvest can be fatal to business because pumpkin sales plummet after Halloween on Oct. 31. Wholesalers need to get pumpkins on their way to stores by mid-September.
Another spate of rain about two weeks before Irene caused outbreaks of the phytophthora fungus —a type of water mold — in many fields, said Jim Stakey, owner of Stakey's Pumpkin Farm in Aquebogue, on New York's Long Island.
This week a cold snap threatened to kill the surviving vines, Murray said.
"We were real close to a frost last night," Murray said Saturday. "It was 34, and if we had had a frost, a lot of immature pumpkins would have never made it."
The wholesale price for a bin of 32 to 45 pumpkins ranged from $150 to $200 in upstate New York, about twice the normal price, Pray said. It was still unclear how the shortage would affect retail prices, he said, but in a normal year, each pumpkin could sell for up to $15 at a supermarket in a big city like New York.
The problems for Northeast farmers have been a boon for growers in other parts of the country, especially in big pumpkin-producing states like Illinois, Indiana, California, Ohio and Michigan.
"There's been a ton of people calling from New Jersey," said Larry Goebel, co-owner of Goebel Farms in Evansville, Ind. "We can sell every pumpkin we want to sell."
With good pumpkins hard to find, Murray said buyers can make them last longer by washing them with water mixed with a little bleach. That kills any fungus left over from the fields and staves off mold and rotting, he said.
The pumpkin crunch could also affect tourism because pick-your-own pumpkin farms have become important attractions in many rural areas, farmers said.
Stakey's 26-acre farm offers pumpkin-picking along with pony rides, a cornfield maze, rides in a farm wagon and other events. He said he's buying extra pumpkins to put in the fields to supplement his own crop.
"Just get your pumpkins early, that's all I can say," he said. "It's going to be a difficult season."