Squish squash: Maryland farmers see meager pumpkin crops after wet summer

The Baltimore Sun

Maryland farmers say their gourds are far from handsome or abundant this fall after an unusually wet summer drowned the state’s pumpkin crops.

As 2018 marks one of Maryland’s rainiest seasons on record, pumpkins are the latest seasonal joy — along with outdoor movies, festivals and baseball games — to be ruined by the rain.

“Pumpkins prefer dry weather,” said Steve Weber of Weber’s Cider Mill Farm in Parkville. “You can make more pumpkins in dry weather than wet weather. It wasn't a good growing season.”

Soils have remained saturated across Maryland since the beginning of the growing season. Rainfall levels surged above normal starting in May, and accelerated from there, with torrents of precipitation coming in mid-July and again in September as pumpkins matured on the vine.

Brenda Strohmer of Strohmer’s Farm in Woodstock said her crop yielded only about 25 percent of what was planted, with many of her pumpkins coming in stunted.

“They’re supposed to be 30 pounds, but I’ll be lucky if they’re 15,” said Strohmer, adding that a lack of sunshine probably contributed to the pumpkins’ sizes.

Some of her gourds are still green, she said.

Strohmer has been swapping her smaller pumpkins with other nearby farms that produced only a larger variety, though every farmer is struggling, she said.

Weber said he does not know of any local farmers who are selling their own pumpkin crop this fall. In times of trouble, local farmers like Weber keep seasonal customers happy by stocking fruits and veggies imported in bulk from other states and purchased at produce auction houses.

Weber headed Tuesday to Buffalo Valley Produce Auction in Mifflinburg, Pa., to stock up on pumpkins shipped from the Midwest.

“Every year there's always pumpkins somewhere and you put some on a truck and send them where they're needed,” Weber said. “This ain’t no big deal, but you might see some price increases because it costs freight money to bring them in from Indiana and Ohio.”

Buffalo Valley’s manager, Neil Courtney, said the auction house saw a big increase in business this year because the pumpkin crop was so poor in Maryland and Southern Pennsylvania.

Farmers who have lost pumpkins are likely out of luck when it comes to crop insurance coverage, said Kathi Levan, crop insurance manager for MidAtlantic Farm Credit. The squash variety is not eligible for such policies in Maryland, though some farmers may seek coverage for pumpkin losses under what are known as "whole farm" policies, which ensure farmers their historic revenue across all commodities.

According to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, insurance policies on pumpkin crops are sold only in Illinois.

There’s been enough rain to put Maryland on pace for what might be its wettest year on record.

More than 55 inches of rain — more than 20 inches above normal — has fallen so far this year at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport, the region's point of record. BWI gets about 42 inches of precipitation in a normal year, and 2003 was its wettest on record, with nearly 63 inches.

The National Weather Service estimates rainfall has been even more extreme in other parts of the state. Radar suggests 60 to 70 inches of rainfall so far this year, as much as twice normal levels, across much of Baltimore, Carroll, Frederick and Harford counties.

Despite the soggy pumpkin fields, Weber was not too discouraged over the loss of jack-o’-lantern fodder. In his experience, farmers who grow pumpkins do not rely solely on the orange gourd for profits.

Weber, for example, used pumpkins to fill his strawberry patch after the fruit’s season had waned.

“It’s still a good year for apples and peaches,” he said.

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