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Food & Dining

It's no pumpkin-pocalypse, but perfect gourds are few

Published:   |   Updated: March 21, 2013 at 01:40 AM

Pumpkin patches may look a bit funky this year, and not in a good way.

Awful weather this season significantly damaged pumpkin-growing fields in some states, and Hurricane Irene nearly destroyed pumpkin patches across the coastal Northeast.

Luckily, the canned pumpkin crop looks good, and nearly every state has some farms that produce decorative pumpkins like those used for carving, so one region's disaster won't doom the entire holiday nationwide.

But the jabberwocky weather will mean pumpkins of variable quality, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

New York and Texas, for instance, had excessive heat and dry weather that damaged pumpkin fields, while New England saw entire fields washed out by Hurricane Irene.

Because pumpkins are heavy, and fuel prices were high this summer, wholesale prices for an 800-pound bin of 40 large pumpkins from the Hudson Valley in New York were selling for $145 as of this week, about 16 percent higher than last year, according to the USDA.

Miniature pumpkins from Ohio were up 3 percent in price. Eventually, those prices could trickle down to consumers.

Sweetbay officials say they were lucky enough to source their pumpkins from Michigan, and so they'll have a good supply of healthy pumpkins this year, priced at about $6.99 for a 14- to 15-pound gourd.

Publix officials also said they're in good shape for the decorative Jack-o-Lantern pumpkins.

It's the non-traditional pumpkin patches that may see some odd looking pumpkins.

David Hunsader, president of Hunsader Farms in Mayakka City, saw his pumpkin costs jump significantly, but they've decided to absorb the difference, rather than pass the costs on to visitors to their massive pumpkin festival.

"Our pumpkins are a little funkier this year," Hunsader said. "There are more of them in odd shapes, with the color not there, and smaller. But overall, they look good, and nice and orange."

As for keeping that pumpkin fresh-looking, some growers suggest spraying the gourds with a very dilute bleach solution to kill off bacteria or fungus, then a fresh water rinse. But don't cut into them until the last minute, Hunsader said. "In this Florida heat," he said, "once you cut them, they're done."

As for canned pumpkin mix, the 2011 season looks better than previous years.

The market's dominant provider, Libby's, sent out the first shipment two weeks ago, and cans are starting to appear on store shelves now.

"So far, so good," said Roz O'Hearn, spokeswoman for Libby's, whose processing facility in Morton, Ill. is surrounded 50 miles in every direction by pumpkin fields. That relatively better crop compares to 2009 when rain so bogged down the fields that tractors were stuck up to their axels in muck, O'Hearn said.

"Now, the 2011 harvest is underway," she said, "and we're hoping it's an abundant one, with help from Mother Nature."

rmullins@tampatrib.com (813) 259-7919 Twitter: @DailyDeadline
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