It's pumpkin-selling season, and crowds are flocking to farms to pick out their own jack-o'-lanterns. But this year, challenging weather conditions have cut the supply of pumpkins — both for carving and canning.
Heavy summer rains in parts of the Midwest and elsewhere have left many farmers short on pumpkins. And in California, drought has squeezed the crop.
All of that is also affecting canned puree makers, which consume about half of all pumpkins. Among those affected is Libby's, the largest U.S. producer of canned pumpkins. Libby's fills its cans with pumpkins that come mostly from Illinois, America's leading pumpkin producer.
Roz O'Hearn, a spokesperson for Libby's parent company, Nestle USA, says that rainy weather in Illinois cut the crop by half compared with 2014.
"We think there's enough pumpkin to carry us through Thanksgiving," O'Hearn says. "But we generally plant enough pumpkin that we have a cushion that would carry us into the next year. And it doesn't look like that cushion's going to be there this year."
O'Hearn says she doesn't expect that lack of a cushion to affect prices this fall.
Pumpkins are a $145 million industry, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service. That's a small amount compared to other produce. But demand for pumpkins is rising — production is up nearly 30 percent over five years.
O'Hearn says there should be enough supply to fill our pumpkin pies through Thanksgiving — but after that, she says, there's going to be a shortage until the next harvest.
Increasingly, some pumpkin growers are navigating shortages by selling not just pumpkins but family fun — with attractions like corn mazes and petting zoos.
For instance, at Waldoch Farm, a Minnesota farm just north of the Twin Cities, admission starts at $10. Add a hot cider and a hot dog, and a family of four could end up dropping $50 or more.
Doug Joyer of Waldoch Farm is a fourth-generation farmer, but the first in his family to rely solely on the farm for income. He says he added a corn maze five years ago by popular request.
"People called us asking if we did a corn maze," Joyer says. "They kind of assumed we had a corn maze if we had a pumpkin patch."
Joyer's farm sells decorative and small-pie pumpkins, which are also experiencing a shortage — though it's not as severe as the one facing pumpkins used for processing.
Paul Hugunin, a marketing manager with the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, has watched farm culture for the past 27 years. He says this addition of entertainment is how a lot of pumpkin farms are staying profitable even when the harvest is light.
"The biggest change that we see with pumpkins is not so much the number of farms growing them or the number of pumpkins we're raising," Hugunin says. "It's what goes along with that."
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
It's October and that means pumpkins, as well as pumpkin flavors. You get a pumpkin for your porch, maybe. You can buy a slice of pumpkin bread, along with a pumpkin bagel, a pumpkin spice latte and top it off with a pumpkin-flavored beer. When ordering pumpkin anything, bear in mind they are in short supply this year, yet that has not stopped the spreading dominance of pumpkins, which farmers have turned from a crop into a show. Here's reporter Kaomi Goetz.
KAOMI GOETZ, BYLINE: On a beautiful, sunny fall Saturday, Kevin Coppinger took his nearly 3-year-old daughter Mae to a Minnesota farm just north of the Twin Cities. They were starting a family tradition - to find a pumpkin.
KARA: How about this one? Pick this one up.
GOETZ: Mae was picky. But after 10 minutes, with pumpkins all around her...
KEVIN COPPINGER: OK, go pick one. Is that the one? Is that the one?
COPPINGER: We did it.
GOETZ: Finally, Mae was happy and satisfied, and so was her mom, Kara.
KARA: I've actually never been to a pumpkin patch where you actually pick them. So it was fun to do that.
GOETZ: In the past, paying for the pumpkin might have ended the story, but not at Waldoch Farm.
DOUG JOYER: I'm the fourth-generation farmer. So my great-grandfather, Grandpa Bill, bought the farm in 1916.
GOETZ: Doug Joyer is the first in his family to rely solely on the farm for income. He's able to do it partly because he's doing more than just selling vegetables. He's now selling fun to thousands of visitors each fall.
JOYER: For generations, we grew pumpkins. But about five years ago, we started our corn maze. People called us, asking if we did a corn maze. They kind of assumed we had a corn maze if we had a pumpkin patch.
GOETZ: Besides picking your pumpkin, visitors can feed live animals, shoot corn from a cannon and take selfies. Admission is $10. Add on a cup of cider and a hot dog, a family of four can drop $50 or more. Paul Hugunin is a marketing manager with the Minnesota Department of Agriculture. He's watched farm culture for the past 27 years. He says this edition of entertainment is how a lot of farms are staying profitable, even when the harvest is light.
PAUL HUGUNIN: The biggest change that we see with pumpkins is not so much in the number of farms that we have growing them or even the number of pumpkins that we're raising. It's what goes along with that.
GOETZ: USDA statistics show pumpkins are a $145 million industry. That's a small amount compared to other produce. But demand for pumpkins is rising. Production is up nearly 30 percent over five years. It's not an easy business thanks to unpredictable weather. Heavy summer rains and parts of the Midwest and elsewhere hurt, leaving many farmers short on pumpkins.
And in California, drought has squeezed the crop. All of that is also affecting canned puree makers, who consume about half of all pumpkins. Libby's is a famous brand. Its cans are filled with pumpkins that come mostly from Illinois. Spokeswoman Roz O'Hearn says rainy weather there cut the crop by half.
ROZ O'HEARN: We think there's enough pumpkin to carry us through Thanksgiving. But we generally plant enough pumpkin that we have a cushion that would carry us into the next year, and it doesn't look like that cushion's going to be there this year.
GOETZ: O'Hearn says she doesn't expect that lack of cushion to affect prices this fall.
Back at Waldoch Farm, Kristi Sabby came for the pumpkins but ended up playing with her two granddaughters in a box full of corn. She says it's like being at a state fair.
KRISTI SABBY: Only not the crowds, so just - again, just kind of a well-kept secret. We're happy we found it.
GOETZ: And happy to pay the farmer for it. For NPR News, I'm Kaomi Goetz in Minneapolis. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.