How Texas' frightfully hot, dry summer may have affected your Halloween pumpkin
Remember the hot, dry summer that scorched all of Texas until a week before Halloween? So do the farmers who grew the pumpkins now carved up and ready to greet trick-or-treaters on your porch. Their Halloween frights started last spring.
For pumpkin growers across states like Texas, New Mexico, and Colorado, this year's crop was a reminder of the challenges hitting agriculture across the Southwest and West as human-caused climate change exacerbates drought and heat extremes.
Some farmers say they lost 20 percent or more of their predicted yields; others left some land bare. Labor costs and inflation are also narrowing margins, hitting farmers' ability to profit off what they sell to garden centers and pumpkin patches.
For consumers, drought in some areas this year resulted in shortages or higher prices for pumpkins at the grocery store or pumpkin patch.
This year's thirsty gourds are a symbol of the reality that farmers who rely on irrigation must continue to face season after season: they have to make choices, based on water allotments and the cost of electricity to pump it out of the ground, about which acres to plant and which crops they can gamble on to make it through hotter and drier summers.
Pumpkins can survive hot, dry weather to an extent, but this summer's heat, which broke world records and brought temperatures well over 100 degrees to agricultural fields across the country, was just too much, says Mark Carroll, a Texas A&M extension agent for Floyd County, which he calls the “pumpkin capital” of the state.
“It’s one of the worst years we’ve had in several years,” Carroll says. Not only did the hot, dry weather surpass what irrigation could make up for, but pumpkins also need cooler weather to be harvested or they'll start to decompose during the shipping process, sometimes disintegrating before they even arrive at stores.
This year it was so hot into the harvest season in Texas that farmers had to decide whether to risk cutting pumpkins off the vines at the usual time or wait and miss the start of the fall pumpkin rush. Adding to the problem, irrigation costs more as groundwater levels continue to drop — driving some farmers' energy bills to pump water into the thousands of dollars every month.
Lindsey Pyle, who farms 950 acres of pumpkins about an hour outside Lubbock, has seen her energy bills go up too, alongside the cost of just about everything else, from supplies and chemicals to seed and fuel. She lost about 20 percent of her yield. She added that pumpkins can be hard to predict earlier in the growing season because the vines might look lush and green, but not bloom and produce fruit if they aren't getting enough water.
Jill Graves, who added a pumpkin patch to her blueberry farm about an hour east of Dallas three years ago, says they had to give up on growing their own pumpkins this year and source them from a wholesaler. Graves says the pumpkins she bought rotted more quickly than in past years, but it was better than what little they grew themselves.
Still, she thinks they’ll try again next year. “They worked perfect the first two years,” she says. “We didn't have any problems.”
Pumpkin problems beyond Texas
The issues brought on by heat and drought stretched well beyond Texas, across the Western United States. Steven Ness, who grows pinto beans and pumpkins in central New Mexico, says the rising cost of irrigation as groundwater dwindles is an issue across the board for farmers in the region. That can inform what farmers choose to grow, because if corn and pumpkins use about the same amount of water, they might get more money per acre for selling pumpkins, a more lucrative crop.
But at the end of the day, "our real problem is groundwater, ... the lack of deep moisture and the lack of water in the aquifer,” Ness says. That's a problem that likely won't go away because aquifers can take hundreds or thousands of years to refill after overuse, and climate change is reducing the very rain and snow needed to recharge them in the arid West.
Alan Mazzotti can see the Rocky Mountains about 30 miles west of his pumpkin patch in northeast Colorado. He could tell the snow was abundant last winter. But one season of above-average snowfall wasn't enough to refill the dwindling reservoir he relies on to irrigate his pumpkins.
He received news last spring that his water delivery would be about half of what it was from the previous season, so he planted just half of his typical pumpkin crop. Then heavy rains in May and June brought plenty of water and turned fields into a muddy mess, preventing any additional planting many farmers might have wanted to do.
“By time it started raining and the rain started to affect our reservoir supplies and everything else, it was just too late for this year,” Mazzotti says.
He says that with not enough water, you “might as well not farm” — but even so, he sees labor as the bigger issue. Farmers in Colorado have been dealing with water cutbacks for a long time, and they're used to it. However, pumpkins can't be harvested by machine like corn can, so they require lots of people to determine they're ripe, cut them off the vines, and prepare them for shipping.
He hires guest workers through the H-2A program, but Colorado recently instituted a law ensuring farmworkers to be paid overtime — something most states don't require. That makes it tough to maintain competitive prices with places where laborers are paid less, and the increasing costs of irrigation and supplies stack onto that, creating what Mazzotti calls a “no-win situation.”
He'll keep farming pumpkins for a bit longer, but “there’s no future after me,” he said. “My boys won’t farm.”
Stephanie Allmon Merry contributed to this story.