At the beginning of July, Leonard Keller Jr. was ecstatic with the way his pumpkin crop was growing.
The plants were the size of car tires, he said, and an abundance of flowers were blooming – the harbinger of plenty of pumpkins to come.
By the end of the month, however, Keller’s outlook on the 28-acre crop changed.
Excessive rainfall saturated the soil on his Clarks Summit farm. The plants and developing pumpkins soaked up the moisture like a sponge, and in the end it was just too much.
Not only did the rain drown the plants, it also came at a time of year when the pumpkins are pollinating to generate the upcoming crop. The rain kept the pollinators – bees – at bay, and washed the pollen off the flowers that did bloom.
The yield from Keller’s pumpkin crop plummeted. A 14-acre patch planted at his home produced nothing. A 10-acre field that typically yields 70 to 80 bins of pumpkins now generated just four. And a 4-acre field delivered just a third of what it normally produces.
The scenario was a disaster for Keller, who ships his pumpkins to the wholesale market where they’re sold at supermarkets and garden centers. The crop is his last one of the year, and the money earned is used to help pay his taxes, insurance, fertilizer bills and provide a head start for purchasing supplies for next year’s planting season.
“This is why I grow this crop and depend on it,” Keller said. “After this year, we’ll just have to figure something out.”
Rain dampened the hopes of many pumpkin growers across the state. If the moisture didn’t drown plants and wash away pollen, it spread a devastating disease – phytophthora – that is the bane of every vegetable farmer.
Jeff Stoltzfus, a Penn State Extension educator based in Lancaster County, said the heavy rainfall in September resulting from Hurricane Ida significantly impacted pumpkin crops across the state.
Phytophthora is a soilborne disease that thrives when the ground is saturated. It infiltrates pumpkins while they’re still on the vine and causes them to rot from the inside, eventually collapsing into mush.
“The disease moves in the water that’s in the soil, and it spreads like wildfire,” Stoltzfus said. “Going into August we had a pretty decent pumpkin season, but then things went bad in September when the hurricanes arrived. That pushed us over the edge.”
While the financial hit to pumpkin growers is apparent, Stoltzfus said it remains to be seen how the disastrous season will affect prices for consumers. Pumpkins are a regional market, he said, whether they’re sold wholesale or retail at farm stands. If the crop in one region is lost, there’s usually plenty of supply elsewhere that can be shipped in to fill the void.
“If the pumpkin crop in northeast Pennsylvania was lost, for example, there’s usually enough grown in New York that can fill in and keep the retail market supplied,” Stoltzfus said. “Prices are always hard to predict.”
Unfortunately for growers like Keller, however, the losses are hard to foresee. After the July rains washed away most of his crop, Keller told his buyers what happened and they agreed to take anything that was left to harvest.
Keller thought about buying pumpkins at the Buffalo Valley Produce Auction in Mifflinburg, just to keep his buyers supplied, but the move didn’t make economic sense.
The wet conditions impacted growers not only in Pennsylvania, but across the country, according to Keller. By the second week of September, he said, there were buyers from Texas, Nebraska, Georgia, the Carolinas and elsewhere showing up at Buffalo Valley to bid on bins of pumpkins.
As a result of the increased demand, prices spiked.
A 100-count of small sugar pumpkins – a variety that Keller sells for $3.50 each, was bringing $400, he said. Even if he increased his price to $4.25, it would still result in just $25 profit per bin – and that would be erased after another $500 expense to truck the pumpkins from Buffalo Valley to his Clarks Summit farm.
“There’s just too much overhead. I’d have to raise my price to my customers to $5 a pumpkin, and if I charge too much they can’t get a return,” Keller said. “It would be more of a financial loss to buy them from the auction this year.”
Some pumpkin growers in the region were a bit more fortunate this year, however.
Harry Roinick, owner of Pumpkin Hill Produce Farm in Nescopeck Township, Luzerne County, had problems with phytophthora in his peppers, cantaloupes and watermelons, but his pumpkin crop was fine.
In fact, it was one of the best crops he ever had.
“They’re huge. I have so many 70 and 80-pounders that I’m having trouble getting small ones,” Roinick said. “I never had pumpkins like this.”
The rain that struck Keller’s farm in July also engulfed Roinick’s fields, but he had some luck earlier in the year during planting season.
Phytophthora stays in the ground for years, Roinick said, particularly where vegetable crops had been planted. But this year, Roinick planted his pumpkins in a field that had previously been in a rotation with strawberries, sweet corn and a rye cover crop for the last 10 years.
If anything, Roinick’s pumpkin crop turned out to be almost too bountiful because they’re all so large.
“They’re hard to handle,” he said. “But my customers are buying the big ones. I sell them for $8 to $11 and I have a lot.
“This is a big-time phytophthora year with the rain and humidity in July, but I was fortunate not to have problems with my pumpkins.”
For Keller, he’ll likely put the financial loss of this year’s crop behind him and find a way to plant another crop next May. And after the seeds go in the ground and the fertilizer is spread, he’ll keep his fingers crossed that the wet conditions realized in 2021 don’t return.
“I would rather farm in a drought year than a wet year,” Keller said. “At least in a drought you can irrigate. But when you have this much rain and things are so saturated, it’s a struggle.”