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Maryland unlikely to have pumpkin shortage

A Halloween without pumpkins?

Good grief!

But before you race to the grocery store for canned pumpkin to mold into fall's favorite orange orb, consider this: While the soggy residents of Pennsylvania, New York and Vermont are facing a shortage of jack-o-lanterns, Maryland's trick-or-treaters will be spared the trauma.

"We definitely lost some, but pumpkins will be around," said Dwight Baugher, who has started harvesting more than 70 acres of oversized squash at Baugher's Orchard and Farm inWestminster. "We'll be OK."

Already his workers are stacking the fruits of the fields in wooden bins for sale at his market off Route 140. Other pumpkin patches will be left for the pick-it-yourself crowd that will come on October weekends.

The heavy rains that accompanied Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee played havoc with the pumpkin crop north of Maryland, washing unripened fruit right off the vines and leaving a calling card of mold and rot on the survivors. Wholesale prices in that region have doubled and farmers with produce stands or who supply other markets are trying to buy pumpkins from regions that were spared.

While Maryland had more than its share of moisture, the state's pumpkins took it in stride, farmers said. Well-draining fields away from streams and farms on the fringe of the heaviest weather fared well. Crops in low-lying areas or closer to the Susquehanna River basin, where Lee's fury was concentrated, sustained the most damage.

"Usually, bad weather means bad pumpkins, but we had a healthy season," said Brooke Rodgers, who cultivates about 13 acres of pumpkins at North Run Farm in Stevenson. "It's probably a combination of geography and luck."

Despite their hardy appearance, pumpkins can be shrinking violets when it comes to weather. For example, a cold, rainy spring and a dry August conspired to make 2009 a terrible year. Last year, when the weather was more to their liking, pumpkins rebounded, raising hopes for another bumper crop this year.

In early August, before the rains came, a good portion of the state experienced moderate drought conditions — pumpkins don't like that, either. But good irrigation systems kept things on track in many areas, said Mike Newell, crop manager at the University of Maryland's research center at Wye River on the Eastern Shore.

Still, the pounding rains and high winds that came later took their toll, reducing Newell's acre-sized test crop of 20 pumpkin varieties by 50 percent.

However nearby, Paul Jackson, owner of Emily's Produce inCambridge, said he has started picking his 10 acres and will leave some on the vine for the do-it-yourself folks.

"I always plant more than I need, but I would say buy early. Don't wait until Oct. 15 or 20," he said of his supply.

Western Maryland fared better this growing season, if the state's test crop in Keedysville is an indicator.

"It's always hard to predict," said Bryan Butler, the Carroll County extension agent for the University of Maryland. "With green pumpkins and green foliage, you really don't know what you've got until you get out in the field."

And what did he find on the first day of picking on Monday?

"It's good. Good quality. Good color. It's every bit as good if not better than 2010," Butler said.

There will be plenty of pumpkins to go around, said Baugher, unless the weather intercedes again.

"We have five weekends in October, just like last year," he said. "If we have five bang-up, blue-sky weekends like last year, it will be hard to supply all the fall festivals, all the farmers' markets, all the agri-tainment. If we get a couple of rainouts, we'll have plenty of pumpkins."

In the event demand exceeds supply, Maryland growers said, there's always the well-established agriculture infrastructure to fall back on. Big pumpkin-producing states such as Ohio, Illinois and Michigan regularly truck their bounty to supermarkets and farm stands in this region.

Besides, selling all you have is good business, said Baugher's manager Cheryl Vural.

"We're supposed to be done at the end," she said. "After Nov. 1, pumpkins kind of lose their appeal."

candy.thomson@baltsun.com

Pumpkin-picking advice

•Select a pumpkin that is orange all over and check to make sure the stem is strong.

•Avoid pumpkins with soft spots or cracks and check for bugs.

•If the pumpkin is to become a jack-o-lantern, make sure it has a flat bottom.

•Medium pumpkins are best for carving; smaller ones are best for cooking.

•University of Maryland Extension has a list of markets and pick-your-own locations at marylandagriculture.info.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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