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In search of the great pumpkin Season's smaller gourd harvest doesn't measure up


Pity the poor pumpkin.

The drought, the summer heat and the heat's debilitating effect on the pollinating honeybee left Maryland's crop of potential jack o' lanterns smaller this year, according to farmers and agriculture experts.

But the pumpkin shortage reported in other parts of the country should be averted in Maryland because more pumpkins were planted this spring than in previous years, farmers say. Still, the pumpkins that survived this summer are on the small side.

"The size is definitely down," said Deborah Buppert, whose family has raised and sold pumpkins from a stand on their Carroll County farm for 20 years.

And the overall number of pumpkins is down about 30 percent, she said, adding that the crop could have been worse.

"Every time there was a critical point in the summer, where we really needed rain, we'd get a half-inch or a quarter-inch," she said, standing amid 600 basketball-sized pumpkins piled in rows at the Buppert's produce stand on Ridge Road in Marriottsville.

Charles A. McClurg, a vegetarian specialist at the University of Maryland Agricultural Extension Service, said the pumpkins he raised on a half-acre tract at the Wye Research and Education Center in Queen Anne's County were 20 percent to 40 percent smaller this year.

He blamed the drought and heat. Pumpkin plants wilted and the sweltering heat discouraged honeybees from pollinating the blossoms in July and early August. The lack of pollination killed as many plants as the heat, he said.

"Bees are like people in that they don't like to go out and work when it's too hot," he said. "They have a comfort range just like we do."

Farmers lucky enough to get sufficient rainfall or have irrigation systems said they harvested terrific crops. Stanley Dabkowski, who raised five acres of pumpkins in Glyndon and another acre in Hamp- stead, said his was "the best crop we've ever had."

Betty Russell wasn't so fortunate. Production on her St. Mary's ,, County farm was down 25 percent, which was more typical.

"But we survived," said Mrs. Russell, who sells pumpkins wholesale.

She also said a shortage didn't materialize this year because many farmers planted more pumpkins than usual and because more farmers turned to pumpkins.

"You had a lot of farmers planting three or four acres who never planted before, and a lot of farmers who planted 25 acres who maybe only planted 10 or 20 acres in the past," she said.

Because pumpkins aren't a major crop, there are no surveys to confirm whether more seeds were planted in Maryland soil this spring, say state agriculture officials.

Maryland's pumpkin crop was valued at $1.8 million in 1994, compared to $95 million for soybeans and $51 million for corn, according to state farm statistics.

Stephen L. Weber raised 25 acres of pumpkins on his Havre De Grace farm this year, instead of the usual 15 acres. The reason?

"Over the past 10 years, pumpkin sales have really taken off," said Mr. Weber, who sells pumpkins at a roadside stand in Carney.

Because the supply is relatively stable, prices also should remain stable, said farmers.

Most retailers are charging 25 cents to 40 cents per pound, which comes out to about $5 to $8 for the average 20-pound pumpkin.

On Maryland's roads last week, some customers found it hard to believe the drought had hurt this year's pumpkin crop.

"As you get closer to Halloween, you might have some people complaining about the supply," Andrea Hunsinger said as she searched for pumpkins Friday at Buppert's. "But right now, it's hard to see any shortage."

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