Pumpkins pull through the drought

2012-10-06T03:00:00Z 2012-12-10T10:17:44Z Pumpkins pull through the droughtBY GEORGINA GUSTIN • ggustin@post-dispatch.com > 314-340-8195 stltoday.com

Last year, a monstrously large pumpkin called Sasquatch weighed in at nearly 1,250 pounds, breaking a Missouri state record.

But today, at the Great Pumpkin Commonwealth's official pumpkin weigh-off in Republic, no one expects a repeat performance.

This year's drought was tough on the big guys.

"From what I understand, it's not looking too good," said Lynn Morgan, who runs the city's annual pumpkin-centric festival. "I really don't know how this is going to end."

But as competitive growers fret over the year's giants, everyone else is wondering about the less monumental gourds of the season: Did the historic, crop-slaying drought of this summer kill these symbols of harvest abundance, too?

The answer, growers say, is almost. With their deep roots, a few extra splashes of water and a little luck, the pie-filling, orange orbs managed to pull through.

“They're doing surprisingly well for the summer we had,” said John Relleke, who grows pumpkins on 40 acres at Relleke's Pumpkin Patch in Granite City. “I didn't expect to have a good a crop as it looks like we have.”

Some growers say they've even managed to thrive.

“Overall, the pumpkin crop this year is very, very good,” said Diane Handley, of the Illinois Specialty Growers Association. Some growers in southern Illinois lost some of their crop, but the majority survived, she said.

Pumpkins actually like dry weather and heat, and water is a pumpkin's greatest foe. In 2009 – which was as rainy as this summer was dry – thousands of pumpkins rotted in the fields. Farmers in Illinois, where 90 percent of the canned pumpkins in the country is grown, were especially hard hit, leading to a pumpkin shortage heading into the holiday pie season.

But the pie pumpkins, which are pale and smooth-skinned, and the jack-o-lantern types both have fared well this year.

“In general the fruits are very clean and colorful, and in some parts of Illinois yields are the best ever,” said Mohammad Babadoost, a plant pathologist at the University of Illinois. 'The canning pumpkins they're harvesting are doing well. They're not having any problems.”

While the gourds favor dry conditions, this year was a little too hot and dry, which meant most farmers had to irrigate their patches and then hope temperatures dropped sufficiently for the fruit to set.

“Our biggest concern was not the drought, but the heat, because they won't set fruit if temperatures are above 95,” said Dave Thies, of Thies Farms and Greenhouses in Maryland Heights, where pumpkins grown on 30 acres, many of which were irrigated this year. “But for some reason, we lucked out. I guess there were a few windows of time where they could pollinate.”

This year growers took advantage of the balmy spring to plant seeds earlier than normal, in early June. But when the heat set in and the fruits started to set the plants struggled.

“The early season went well, and then July came,” Babadoost said. “It was really hot and dry. They set the fruit, but the fruit aborted. But then later in the season, we got some moisture and the plants started setting fruit again.”

That means the pumpkins had a second chance. But one that seems to be leading to smaller fruit on some farms.

“Some are averaging 75 (pounds) instead of 110 or 120,” Thies said. “Some of the other varieties should be 20 to 30 pounds, they're in the 10 to 15 range. But we'll take it.”

On Saturday, in Republic, about 230 miles southwest of St. Louis, the region's competitive giant pumpkin growers will bring their biggest gourds. But many expect a disappointing result.

“Everybody we've talked to says it's going to be a fairly bad year,” said Linda Womack, who runs the weigh-off festival.

No one expects a gourd to come close to Sasquatch, which earned the state record at 1,244 pounds.

(On September 29, in Massachusetts, a pumpkin grown by a Rhode Island farmer weighed in at over a ton – the first time a pumpkin has surpassed that mark, making huge news in the world of competitive pumpkin growing.)

For fans of orange pumpkins – regardless of size – the year may prove a little disappointing, too. With the fruit setting so late in the season, some farmers worry the pumpkins won't turn their classic orange color in time for Halloween.

“We'll have some pumpkins that won't turn orange by the end of this month,,” said Lynn Sullivan, of Sullivan Farms in Florissant. “You'll probably see some green jack-o-lanterns.”

For small-scale farmers pumpkin season is particularly lucrative, and a bad harvest can have a big impact on their entire year.

"It really helps them sustain their operations," explained Cindy Ott, a professor of American Studies at St. Louis University and author of Pumpkin: The Curious History of an American Icon.. "They can make more money if five weeks than they can in a whole year."

So, while the pumpkins of 2012 may be smaller and greener, growers are saying their patches are full -- and not to worry.

“The vines are over three feet tall in our pick-your-own field,” Relleke said. “You can't see them right now, but eventually the leaves will go down. They'll get trampled. You'll see a lot of pumpkins out there.”

Read more from Georgina Gustin, who covers food, agriculture and biotech for the Post-Dispatch. Follow her on Twitter @georgina_gustin and the Business section @postdispatchbiz.

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