Mother Nature may have sneaked off with a sought-after slice of Thanksgiving.
Recent heavy rains in the Midwest are putting pumpkin pie in short supply this holiday season. On Tuesday, food giant Nestle, which controls about 85% of the pumpkin crop for canning, issued a rare apology and said that rain appeared to have destroyed what remained of a small harvest this year and that it expected to stop shipping the holiday staple by Thanksgiving.
Supermarkets say supplies are tight, depending on the store.
Daymond Rice, a spokesman for Safeway Inc.'s Vons markets, said the chain had enough pumpkin to get through Thanksgiving. "However, we are concerned that we may not have enough -- or will not be able to acquire enough -- product to get through the full holiday season. It remains yet to be seen."
Albertsons said it believed it had enough of the canned pumpkin to last through Thanksgiving. It retails for $2.99 for a 29-ounce can. The grocery chain, a unit of Supervalu Inc., does not plan any shortage-related price increase.
The shortage affects the Libby's brand of 100% pumpkin in 15- and 29-ounce cans as well as Libby's Pumpkin Pie Mix filling in a 30-ounce can.
Some chains have been pushing fresh pumpkins as alternatives. At various points during the shortage, Sprouts Farmers Market has featured displays of a smaller, plumper California-grown pumpkin species than what is sold for Halloween jack-o'-lanterns. A sticker with each pumpkin provides a recipe for turning it into pie.
But Sprouts spokeswoman Patti Milligan said the season for pie pumpkins "is pretty much over, and only a few of our stores still have them."
Shoppers are adapting to the shortage.
Amy Davis, a retired art teacher and swim coach from Anaheim, is figuring out new ways to make pumpkin bread. Usually she uses canned pumpkin but this year is using a packaged mix she found at Trader Joe's.
Davis also has figured out how to use other types of squash as a substitute. "Add some allspice and cinnamon and you get something that tastes pretty close to pumpkin," she said. She also said that sweet potato pie makes a good substitute.
Nestle says that once it runs out, it won't have more pumpkin to can until August, when the 2010 harvest starts. This year's shortage started several months ago and was the result of Libby's not having much surplus from the 2008 crop as a carry-over to sell in September. Nestle said in October that it expected the shortage to ease as the 2009 harvest got underway.
But heavy rains saturated the company's 5,000 acres of pumpkin fields in Morton, Ill., making it nearly impossible for tractors and other equipment to operate, Nestle said.
That will leave Libby's without any surplus to sell next fall while the 2010 crop matures and is processed. Libby's uses what it calls the Select Dickinson pumpkin. It is smaller, squatter, meatier, heavier and sweeter than the typical Halloween pumpkin. The company likes the creamy texture of the pumpkin because it lends itself to cooking.
Nestle issued a formal apology to bakers and posted alternative recipes for desserts such as Holiday-Spiced Baked Custard and Chocolate Satin Pie on its VeryBestBaking.com website.
"If only we could have changed the weather. We hope Mother Nature is nicer to us next year, hopefully delivering less rain and more sunshine," said Paul Bakus, vice president and general manager of Nestle Baking.
Acres of pumpkins sit unharvested in Morton, and the longer the fruit sits in the muddy fields, the more likely it is that the quality of the pumpkin has declined, the company said. Nestle executives believe it is degrading to the point where they will plow it back under the soil to be used as fertilizer for next year's crop.