California Drought Leads to Less Hefty, More Expensive Pumpkins

Drought-ridden California is the number two pumpkin producer in the U.S., second only to Illinois. (Photo: Chris Schrier/flickr).

In California, the normally well-stocked salad bar of the Lower 48, drought has reared its ugly head, agriculturally speaking, in numerous ways from honey shortages to walnut hijackings to organic dairy farms that have been literally milked dry.

And considering that nearly half of all fruits, vegetables and nuts produced in the United States come from California, a certain cultivar of winter squash that makes its grand appearance in the weeks leading up to Halloween has also been impacted by the state’s three-year dry spell.

But before you completely freak out and start hoarding cans of Libby’s and guzzling Pumpkin Spice Lattes (note: does not contain pumpkin) like there's no tomorrow, a bit of clarification:

While California produces a whole lot of pumpkins, it’s actually Illinois that grows the most of the rotund orange crop, primarily for food processing — you know, the pureed, pie-ready stuff that ends up in the aforementioned cans of Libby’s. It’s Morton, Ill., not Morton, Calif., that prides itself as Pumpkin Capital of the World. (Also, there’s no such place as Morton, Calif.)

However, the pumpkins that are grown in California, the nation’s second largest pumpkin producer, are largely decorative ones sold locally — the medium- and large-sized ones that, come October, are carved, painted, hollowed-out, smashed, destroyed by drunk college students, stuffed with a tea lights and placed on doorsteps for all to see on All Hallows' Eve.

As a direct result of the drought and recent heat waves in central and northern California, this year’s jack-o'-lantern-friendly pumpkin crop in California is noticeably smaller due to premature ripening. And the pumpkins that didn't ripen earlier are are less meaty and more meager in size compared to past seasons.

While the yield and size of this year’s pumpkin harvest is measly, one thing did manage to go up and that, of course, would be the price per pound.

"The impact is very severe on us and if we don't get rain this winter we won't be able to grow anything," Fresno farmer Wayne Martin tells NBC News. "The financial impact has really hurt. We've had to pay more for the water and that means consumers will pay more.”

Martin has had to raise the price on his pumpkins by 15 cents due to the absence of moisture-rich soil on his 60-acre patch.

Some farmers have eschewed pumpkins altogether this year, instead opting to grow less water-intensive crops. The farmers that have stayed loyal to the squash have switched over to drip irrigation systems, which allow them to quench the thirst of the gourds while saving precious H2O. However, drip irrigation often leads to a scourge of crop-damaging insects.

Smaller pumpkins, more expensive pumpkins, pumpkins infested with bugs — for Californians, it’s looking to be a frowny face jack-o’-lantern kind of year.

Not all is lost, however. The show very much went on at this year's Half Moon Bay Art & Pumpkin Festival in the San Mateo County town of Half Moon Bay (aka the other Pumpkin Capital of the World) where a record-breaking gourd weighed in at a whopping 2,058 lbs. But all and all, while the entrants were more elephantine than ever at weigh-in, there were fewer of them — an average of 50 entries down to 30. "That is for sure because of the drought," festival spokesman Tim Beeman tells The Guardian. "If your water allowance is cut, then you grow fewer pumpkins."

Via [ThinkProgress], [NBC News]