Slim pickin’s in the patch

Bad weather leaves many farmers with a crippled crop

By Brian MacQuarrie
Globe Staff / October 4, 2009

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DANVERS - Bob Connors, a fifth-generation farmer, shakes his head and rolls his eyes as he scans his scarred and scanty pumpkin patch. Where plump, healthy, orange gourds usually fill the field in bumper-to-bumper ranks, Connors sees only a puny crop that never had a fighting chance.

If not drowned by rain or riddled with disease, the pumpkins at Connors Farm will yield just 10 percent of a normal year’s supply for Halloween. That will mean a $50,000 loss for Connors, and a “Grown in Michigan’’ tag for thousands of future jack-o’-lanterns that will pass by his busy cash registers.

“It’s just frustrating,’’ Connors said. “It seems the pumpkins didn’t see the sun for the entire month of June.’’

Connors isn’t alone. The ultra-soggy months of June and July, coupled with a stretch of extreme heat in August, crippled the pumpkin crop for many New England farmers. In hard-hit Maine, for example, the yield is expected to be off 50 percent this fall and deprive state farmers of an estimated $1 million.

“It’s been such a horrible growing season,’’ said Lauchlin Titus, president of the Maine Vegetable and Small Fruit Growers Association. “The growers I’ve talked to do not remember a year as bad as this.’’

If not for tens of thousands of tons of pumpkins hauled from out of state, the Halloween supply in New England might be even more grim.

“There’s truckloads of them coming from the west of us,’’ Titus said.

The imports, many of them from the upper Midwest, mean New Eng land consumers should be able to find enough pumpkins for jack-o’-lanterns, pies, and front porch decorations. But the price might rise slightly, said Scott Soares, the Massachusetts agriculture commissioner, and some local growers will be acting more as middlemen than hometown suppliers.

“The local guys don’t have much at all,’’ said Joe Pellegrino, a salesman for M&J Produce in Chelsea.

The primary culprit is the rain that inundated the region this summer. The water delayed the growing cycle, which begins in early June, and then kept bees in the hive when they should have been pollinating the pumpkin vines.

The bee factor “is probably the number one reason the yield is so low,’’ said Connors, whose great-great-grandfather began farming in Danvers in 1904. “They’re just like us. They’re not going to come out on a rainy day.’’

As a result, Connors said, 90 percent of the pumpkins he sells this year will come from Michigan. In a normal season, Connors said, he produces everything and offers a pick-your-own field beside a small pond.

That field is now a vegetable ghost town of thin rows of undersize pumpkins, many of them only one-quarter of their normal girth. Connors kicks at one pumpkin that has been disfigured by black rot. Mildew is also prevalent among others, as are the hard, gnarly stems that, instead of being green, indicate a sickly vegetable.

To be sure, some local farmers have produced large pumpkins this year - among them the supersize mutants at the Topsfield Fair’s pumpkin contests. But those are typically cross-breeds - a “squmpkin,’’ Connors said - that combine a squash and a pumpkin and are often babied with shelters and exotic feeds all along their pampered journey from seedling to prize-winner. Any resemblance to the product growing in his fields is a mirage.

Over the past three decades, the $250 million pumpkin industry has increased in popularity among farmers nationwide, said Gary Lucier, an agricultural economist with the US Department of Agriculture. Across the country, 93,000 acres were devoted to pumpkins in 2007, compared with 26,000 in 1982, Lucier said. In New England, that acreage has grown to 5,500 from 1,300, with about 2,037 acres in Massachusetts on 503 farms.

Pumpkins pump $15 million into the New England economy, Lucier said. “There are fall festivals, urban pumpkin patches, things of that nature,’’ the economist added. “Halloween in general has become a bigger holiday.’’

Not all farmers are feeling the washout. At Wilson Farms in Lexington, Calvin Wilson, one of the farm’s partners, said the state’s biggest pumpkin seller has three forklifts working nearly nonstop to keep up with the demand. Part of the reason, Wilson said, is that the 570 acres the farm uses for pumpkins in Litchfield, N.H., has fast-draining soil along the Merrimack River.

“We can get an inch of rain and be back on the field the next day, where other places are stuck in the mud,’’ Wilson said.

Such good fortune is spotty, however. Bill Barrington, sales manager for the Pioneer Valley Growers Association in Whately, said that farmers’ cooperative is seeing a “drastic reduction’’ in yield.

“There will be pumpkins in New England as always, but maybe not as many as we might wish,’’ Barrington said. And if consumers wait too long, he cautioned, pumpkin shortages could occur as Halloween approaches. Soares, the agriculture commissioner, said he does not believe a shortage will happen, but only time will tell.

“It doesn’t look like it at this point,’’ Soares said. “But it could change by the week, depending on what growers harvest and when they bring it to market.’’

In Maine, a frost last weekend dashed some hopes for a robust, late recovery.

“If you were to come out and look at my field, you’d say, ‘Oh, my heavens, look at all the pumpkins,’ ’’ said Ed LeBlanc of Pumpkin World in Dayton, Maine. “But the truth of the matter is, I look out and see a lot of unsaleable product. These dead, green ones will never be orange in time for Halloween.’’

Instead, LeBlanc will rely on Pennsylvania pumpkins to keep his customers happy.

In Danvers, Connors simply shrugs when asked about the unpredictable vagaries of New England weather. He lost his last, entire peach crop to a freeze, he said, and now it’s the pumpkins.

“You’ve got to put things in the rear-view mirror,’’ he said, “because if you take them to heart, you’ll go crazy.’’