The severe drought that devastated crops throughout the U.S. this year has a silver, or rather an orange, lining. Unlike fields of soybeans and corn, this year’s pumpkin harvest is looking bright and bountiful because dry weather is just what pumpkins thrive in. Farmers in northern Illinois, the “heart of pumpkin production” as Time magazine says, are finding themselves awash in fields of pumpkins. Here’s why:
(1) Pumpkins’ root systems can find water deep down.
Pumpkins that are grown from seeds (the most common way to grow them) have extensive root systems that reach far down under the earth, enabling them to access sources of water many other plants cannot, an Associated Press article explains.
(2) Pumpkins grow best in warm, dry conditions — just what the drought provided.
Pumpkins, “tend to thrive in warm, temperate climates that stave off fungus, mold and other rind-rotting diseases that spread in wet conditions,” the Associated Press also notes.
John Ackerman, a farmer in Morton, Illinois, plants some 30 acres with pumpkins. He planted 70 percent of these back in May and they’ve been doing well; those planted in June and July, when the drought “really took hold,” are also now turning orange.
(3) Pumpkins fare poorly in wet weather.
The past few years have been wet and and, therefore, pumpkin yields fell drastically. Flooding was so extensive in 2009 that there was a shortage of canned pumpkin from Nestle-owned Libby’s, leading to bidding wars on eBay. 2010 was one of the wettest ever and limited pumpkin production in the Midwest. Then, in 2011, pumpkin production in the Northeast sank due to Hurricane Irene and other storms.
As a result, pumpkin prices were 60 percent higher last year and, despite the far superior harvest of pumpkins expected this year, prices are still up by about 20 cents due to the variability, says Time magazine. Pumpkins are averaging about $4.80 this year, instead of $4.60.
Pumpkins are related to watermelons, cantaloupes, cucumbers and squashes and while it’s good news that they are in abundant supply, it’s all the more important to think about what happens to the millions of pounds of pumpkins post-Halloween most of which end up in landfills. The East Bay Municipal Utility District (EBMUD) in Oakland, California, instead seeks to turn all those discarded jack-o’-lanterns into a source of renewable energy by gathering pumpkins and other post-consumer food waste and bringing it to anaerobic digesters. Bacteria breaks down the food waste and the methane gas that is released as a byproduct is captured and used to generate electricity.
It’s also all the more important to make sure to dispose of pumpkins properly and sustainably as pumpkin use has been on the rise. In 2010, an estimated 1.4 billion pounds (an average of 4.6 pounds per person) were used in the U.S. Ohio State University’s College of Food, Agricultural and Environmental Sciences suggests using post-Halloween pumpkins for compost and turning them into food for wildlife, by “toss[ing] pumpkins in a field or woodland area” and also removing the seeds.
What’s looking like a bumper crop of pumpkins is yet another reminder of how the changes to weather patterns wrought by climate change are indeed changing our world, in ways great and small. While trick-or-treaters enjoy the plentiful pumpkins of this year, who knows but there might be another shortage soon or so many pumpkins that we don’t know what to do with them.
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Photo by Cindy Funk