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IN SEASON

Why Pumpkin Prices Went Thataway

October 19, 1995|RUSS PARSONS

The scariest thing about this year's Halloween jack-o'-lantern may be how much it costs. Pumpkins, which are usually so plentiful they are given away as bonuses at some markets, this season are more expensive than they have been in several years.

Last year, most markets sold pumpkins for about a dime a pound. At one grocery chain, you could even get one free if you bought $20 worth of groceries. This year, pumpkins are selling for almost twice that at wholesale, and an early survey of local groceries showed most were selling the giant gourds for 25 cents a pound and up.

It's the same old story: Blame it on the weather. But this time, it wasn't California's fault. In fact, California's pumpkin harvest is in pretty good shape, about the same size as last year's.

It's in the East and Midwest, which have been plagued by drought and heat all summer, that pumpkins are scarce. In one area of Southern Illinois, farmers are estimating that their harvest will be only 20% of last year's. Overall, outside of California, the pumpkin haul may be as little as half of last year's.

Problems started with extremely high temperatures during the time pumpkins were flowering and setting fruit. They continued as farmers were not able to water the plants as much as they normally like and then finished--at least in Indiana--with a killing early frost.

Even for those farmers who were able to save their pumpkins with irrigation, the increased cost of production is pushing up prices. And those California pumpkins? They're benefiting from the bidding war that resulted from everyone else's shortages.

Of course, with something that pushes as many emotional hot buttons as pumpkins, it's entirely possible that some chains will take a loss to be able to pull in customers with pumpkins on special. But none is making any promises yet.

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