Fall has arrived, and with the cooler temperatures and shorter days, a symbol of the season has made its return to adorn porch steps and yards across the country.
This time of year, most pumpkins are used for decorative purposes. Many have been meticulously carved to create jack-o’-laterns in preparation for Halloween trick-or-treaters. Varieties of intact pumpkins are also used to decorate homes, churches and other establishments to mark the season. In a little more than a month, the scent of warm pumpkin pie is likely to waft through many a household as families gather for their Thanksgiving feast.
Pumpkins grown in these parts are typically planted around the mid-June and start blooming by the Fourth of July holiday. The pumpkins are usually ready to be harvested by mid-August.
But locally grown pumpkins succumbed to a threat more vile than any bored prankster who would covertly move in to swipe an unsuspecting pumpkin from a porch or a front lawn only to smash it in the streets. Heavy summer rainfall in the area decimated the local crop, area growers said.
Carroll Fender, with Fender’s Farm, said he wanted 6 acres of his farm to be the locale for the perfect pumpkin patch. However, Fender said the toll Mother Nature took on his pumpkins was as scary as any ghoul one may come across on All Hallow’s Eve.
“There have been a few people around who have had some success in growing pumpkins this year, but they’re few and far between,” Fender said. “They lay of the land had to basically be just right.”
Fender said summertime rains pooled on the flatland plot where his patch was located. Pumpkins, Fender said, need just the right balance of wet and dry weather to grown properly. Because there was nowhere for the rain water to go, moisture-requiring fungus had a field day with Fender’s field. He said all he was unable to sell any of the pumpkins grown at his farm at the farm’s produce stand.
“In just a day or two, they’ll rot right off the top of the ground,” Fender said.
However, Keith Toth, with Toth Farms in Jonesborough, fared better than most local growers. Around 7 acres of Toth’s hilly, nearly 100-acre farm are utilized for growing pumpkins. He said about 70 percent of his crop weathered the summer weather. Like Fender, Toth said the right balance is needed for a good pumpkin yield.
“Last year it was too dry,” he said. “This year it was too wet.”
Despite his reasonable success, Toth’s pumpkin patches have been barren for some time. This is because most of Toth’s pumpkins go to a broker who ships them all over the country. He said more than half of his pumpkins are distributed to retailers by Sept. 20.
“Pumpkins, if you do them in volume, you start selling them at the end of August, the first of September,” he said. “I’m usually out of pumpkins by the 18th or 20th of September.”
John Darr with Stanley’s Produce said he typically purchases pumpkins from local farmers to sell at his stand. This year, however, he said this was not an option.
“If they got a few out of their field, it was just a few, not even enough to share with family, never mind try to resale,” he said.
Although local growers were hit hard by rainy weather, area produce stands have more than enough of the winter squash to go around. This is thanks to out-of-state growers whose crop has found its way to produce stands and markets in East Tennessee. Fender said pumpkin sales at his place have been good, and farm employees have made several trips to the Christian County, Ky., area to retrieve pumpkins unaffected by harsh weather.
“I’ve been there four times in the last three weeks to bring quality pumpkins back,” he said.
Darr said the pumpkins sold this year from the Stanley’s stand are coming from northern Virginia, Indiana, Ohio and Pennsylvania. However, he said pumpkin sales are down at his business, and Stanley’s is selling a fraction of the pumpkins it used to.
“The same things with pumpkins is going the direction of Christmas trees,” he said. “After Halloween, you can get pretty, fake pumpkins for a dollar and you can keep them from year to year instead of paying $10 for a nice, big, pretty pumpkin.”