By BETSY BLANEY
Associated Press Writer
LUBBOCK, Texas (AP) -- Greg Carthel knows the toll recent rains have taken on his family's pumpkin patch in the state's top-producing county.
Several heavy downpours across many parts of West Texas in the past few weeks came at inopportune times for pumpkin producers. Muddy fields filled with the orange orbs must dry out before they can be harvested and sold.
The delays have cost Heptad Vegetables -- where Carthel and his uncles work in Floyd County -- several thousand dollars.
"We couldn't get them out of the field," he said. "We didn't have them to sell."
It's prime pumpkin time across the country with Halloween and Thanksgiving just around the corner. Youngsters and adults are gearing up to carve ghoulish, frightening or silly faces on the gourds; others will make pies from the innards.
Demand for pumpkins is at an all-time high, Texas agriculture officials said, and it's mostly because there are fewer pumpkins coming from Floyd County this year.
Across the country, pumpkin prices are up in many places, though that could reflect increased production and transportation costs, said Gary Lucier of the U.S. Agriculture Department.
U.S. pumpkin production has grown significantly over the past 25 years, according to a 2007 USDA report. The number of farms reporting pumpkin acreage has more than doubled since 1982 to 14,073 farms and harvested area has more than tripled to about 96,400 acres.
Illinois typically leads the nation's top producer with Texas ranking seventh in acreage.
Morton, Ill., about 10 miles from Peoria in the central part of the state, bills itself as the world's pumpkin capital. About 80 percent of the world's canned pumpkins are packed at a plant in the town of about 16,000.
In Texas, Floyd County farmers planted fewer acres and yields are down. But there's good news, too.
"The quality was really outstanding," said J.D. Ragland, a Texas AgriLife Extension agent. "We had a really good growing season."
Farmers in Floyd County planted about 750 acres this summer, down from 900 or so last year. Ten years ago, they planted 2,500 acres.
This year's yields are averaging about 20,000 pounds per acre, meaning a harvest of about 7,500 tons in Floyd County alone. Crosby County and areas of East Texas also grow pumpkins but in smaller-acre plots.
Does the drop in acreage mean there might not be enough pumpkins to go around in Texas?
"I would suspect our supply will be short once we get to Halloween time," Ragland said. "We've got pumpkins available now. Come get them while they last."
Prices are high because of a diminished supply. Pumpkins, which come in several varieties ranging in size from less than 2 pounds to as much as 300, this year are selling for an average of 13 cents a pound, Ragland said.
The average price over the past 10 years is about 6 cents a pound; some years the price per pound reached 14 cents.
Most of Floyd County's pumpkins go to metropolitan areas such as Dallas, Fort Worth, Houston, Austin, and Oklahoma City. Grocery store chains take most of the crop. In years past, some of the county's pumpkins made their way to Japan.
The drop in acreage this year is basic economics, Ragland said.
Pumpkin production is labor intensive. Workers must walk through fields, cutting the festive gourds from their vines and loading them onto trucks.
"Everything done with the pumpkin needs to be done by hand," he said. "Hand labor is expensive."
Producers also had to water the crop earlier in the season, which added to their irrigation costs. Pumpkin fields need 27 inches of moisture for optimum growth.
"Energy costs are just so high," Carthel said, adding that running irrigation pumps prohibits many growers from planting more acres.
Still, consumers will have plenty to assess.
"First and foremost look for uniformity in shape and brightness of color," Ragland said. "Then be sure your pumpkin has a big, long, stout stem so you can handle it. That's really about all you have to look for."
(Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)