Nothing says Halloween like a pumpkin, and dozens of Maryland farmers are grateful for that.
The orange harbingers of fall bring crowds to farm stands and pick-your-own fields. They're the centerpiece around which some farms have built themselves into "agritourism" destinations, with hayrides, corn mazes and other kid-friendly activities.
Now the crush is on. And in much of the state — fortunately for farmers — the pumpkin harvest is good this year.
"The dry weather we had in August and September were great for the pumpkins," said Brad Milton, a farmer who owns Brad's Produce in Harford County with wife Karin.
But in parts of the Eastern Shore, ill-timed rain and diseases like downy mildew reduced the yield.
"It's very short supply this year," said Sudeep A. Mathew, a Dorchester County-based agricultural agent for the University of Maryland Extension.
Pumpkins aren't a major Maryland crop. They accounted for just 1,500 acres of the 2 million farmed in the state in 2011, the most recent data, according to the Maryland Department of Agriculture.
But for some farmers who grow them, pumpkins represent a key part of a key season.
"I'm open from April through the beginning of November, and I do over half of my business in the month of October," said Martha Anne Clark, owner of Clark's Elioak Farm in Ellicott City, which has a petting farm, a pine-tree maze, a "cow train" of bovine-decorated cars pulled by a tractor and — of course — a pumpkin patch.
Said Lynn Moore, president of Larriland Farm in Woodbine: "It's kind of like Christmas is to the department stores."
Clark grows her own pumpkins and buys from other local farmers to supplement, because many people come to her farm on Route 108 in search of one. She figures she sells 20,000 to 30,000 each fall to families and field-trip groups.
"It's a lot of pumpkins," she said.
Locally, most farmers charge by the pound for jack-o'-lantern varieties meant for carving. Fifty to 60 cents or so per pound is typical.
Gaver Farm in Mount Airy has kept its price at 49 cents a pound for four years, though 2011 was a struggle. Hurricane Irene flooded fields that season.
"We lost 4 acres of our pumpkins," said farm co-owner Lisa Gaver, who is grateful for the bumper crop this season. "They just picked themselves up and floated away. … We ran out that year."
That's the reality of growing pumpkins, like any farming: The wrong amount of rain can doom a crop.
Mathew, the agricultural agent, said the early part of the pumpkin growing season was too wet for a number of farmers in the lower Eastern Shore. Pumpkins also have fallen prey to more diseases in the last few years, he said. And some farmers made the financial decision to skip the crop this year, calculating that the price they could get wasn't worth the expense.
"So everybody's looking for pumpkins," Mathew said. Some farmers who sell directly to consumers have turned to Pennsylvania growers for replacements.
But Henry Oakley said his farm near Salisbury made out just fine — he has more than enough for customers at Oakley's Farm Market and sold some wholesale to folks who ended up short.
He knows he's lucky. A farm just 7 miles down the road from his lost a good bit of its pumpkins. And rain earlier this year wiped out half his watermelons and three-quarters of his tomatoes. So it's a good thing he has a fall crop to spare.
Pumpkins — and the farm activities built around them — are a mainstay for Oakley. He estimated that October and the spring strawberry season together account for nearly two-thirds of his business.
Even in the depths of the recession, as customers pulled back on discretionary spending, they still came out for pumpkins.
"It is a wholesome, fun activity to do as a family, and not that expensive," Oakley said. "A good way to get your feet in the dirt, so to speak, so you can see what's going on with your country cousins, you know what I mean?"
That's definitely part of what drives customers to him and other farmers in the fall, as opposed to a supermarket with a crate full of the gourds. Only 2 percent of Americans live on farms, and plenty of people in the other 98 percent like the idea of spending an occasional afternoon on one.
They're paying for the experience — the verdant fields, the rumble of a tractor, the weathered barn — as much as for the pumpkins. And some linger to get their money's worth.
"We've had some people spend hours and hours looking for the perfect pumpkin," said Milton of with Brad's Produce.
Some farms draw people in with the ag version of an amusement park. Gaver Farm in Mount Airy has a farm animal "arena," an obstacle course, a straw mountain, bale roping and play tractors — to name just a few of its more than 40 fall activities.
The farm's motto on its website: "We Harvest Fun!"
"If we go back a decade or 15 years, this whole agritourism thing was sort of a niche diversification, something you do on the side just to play around," said Charlie Touchette, executive director of the North American Farmers' Direct Marketing Association. "It's become far more significant to those farms that have grown with it. It's no longer the diversification, it's the focus for many of these farms."
The reason it works is that Americans are disconnected from farming, but not so far removed that the nostalgia for that lifestyle is gone, he said. And some local farmers think they're benefiting from the growing "buy local" enthusiasm.
Maryland looks like a good bet for agritourism, especially the densely populated stretch near Baltimore and Washington, because farms have so many potential customers — people with money to spare. It's one of the country's richest states, with half the households making more than $70,000 a year.
"There's a lot of people in Maryland, and there's an interest in … taking your kids out to something cool that's outdoors," said Mark Powell, chief of marketing for the Maryland Department of Agriculture, which is working with state highway officials to roll out road signs for agritourism operations next year.
Maryland's not short on fall-harvest options. The website PumpkinPatchesandMore.org counts about 100 farms, nurseries and other locations statewide with pumpkins and fall activities.
"It's … becoming very saturated in a way," Gaver said. "It's getting to be that a lot of people are doing the same thing."
Touchette said demand for agritourism still seems to be exceeding the supply nationwide. The top complaint he hears from farms isn't competition but weather woes — a rainy weekend in October can take a big bite out of revenue.
Drive to tiny Churchville near Bel Air for one example of coexisting competitors. Brad's Produce is one of three farming operations there with pumpkins and associated activities — the other two are Lohr's Orchard and Harman's Farm Market — "and all of us do a good business," Milton said.
"People like supporting the local farmers," he said.
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