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Published October 02, 2010, 12:00 AM

Canned pumpkin puree slowly makes its way back onto store shelves

It’s the Great Pumpkin Comeback, Charlie Brown
The good news: The Great Pumpkin Shortage may be over. The bad news: It will be a while until solid-pack pumpkin again packs grocery stores.

The good news: The Great Pumpkin Shortage may be over.

The bad news: It will be a while until solid-pack pumpkin again packs grocery stores.

For the first time in months, local supermarkets are receiving limited amounts of the canned puree so vital to Thanksgiving feasts. Previously, pumpkinistas across the country were unable to find canned pumpkin on store shelves, as torrential rains in America’s “Pumpkin Belt” made it impossible to harvest 2009’s crop.

The problem was compounded by pumpkin’s growing popularity in American kitchens. While the majority of canned pumpkin sales still occur from October through December, its new reputation as a nutrient-packed “super food” means more people are eating pumpkin year-round.

“This is the first stuff we’ve gotten since November of last year,” says Gene Filley, a grocery buyer for Nash Finch, which owns SunMart grocery stores. “But it’s not in the quantities we’d like to get.”

Local supermarkets are receiving “allocations” of the canned stuff, which means each store only gets an allotted number of 24-can cases each time they order. Each Hornbacher’s store, for instance, can order just 10 cases at a time.

But as the holidays near, “10 cases is not even going to last a day,” says Matt Leiseth, president of Hornbacher’s Foods. “Maybe, if we can convince them all to make a buttercup-squash pie instead, but that’s probably not going to happen.”

Rain squashes crop

The pumpkin is a cucurbit, the fruit of an herbaceous annual plant of the gourd family that thrives in hot, dry growing conditions.

But central Illinois, which grows 95 percent of all canning pumpkins, was besieged by rain and cloudy days last summer.

The lion’s share of pumpkins grown there are processed by Libby’s, a Nestle subsidiary. Libby’s contracts with independent farmers who grow Libby Select – a meaty, oval, buff-colored variety of Dickinson pumpkins – on 5,000 acres near the company’s Morton, Ill., processing plant.

The state’s second-biggest processor, Seneca Foods, which produces the Festal brand and some private labels, also is located nearby.

In the past two years, precipitation in this area topped more than 100 inches, nearly 2 feet above average. The cool, wet conditions are an ideal incubating ground for pumpkin disease organisms.

Most significantly, the land became too wet to harvest. Tractors got mired in the muck up to their axles, leaving most of the pumpkin crop to rot in the fields.

Growers in other parts of the country, such as the small producers who supplied the fall fruit for organic canned pumpkin, saw better growing conditions last year, according to The Washington Post. Consequently, it’s been easier to find organic brands, although they command anywhere from $3 to $4 a can.

Fresh pumpkins also fared better. Fargo-Moorhead grocers purchase their fresh supply from local farmers, and the past year has been good for growing pie pumpkins – the smaller, denser, sweeter alternative to the ornamental pumpkins raised for carving or display.

“We’ve got a pretty good pumpkin crop,” says Trina Kalm of FM Farmers’ Market in West Fargo. She says the market sells five different varieties of pumpkins specifically developed for cooking and baking.

“We’re trying to get them all off the ground because with the wet soil, they won’t last as long. But we almost have all of ours harvested.”

Commanding $30 a can

Still, for those who prefer the convenience of canned pumpkin, it’s been a tough year.

Typically, Libby’s fall harvest produces enough canning pumpkins to last until the following year’s crop is harvested.

But not in 2009.

Since last fall, Libby’s representatives have warned that it might not have enough pumpkin to last through the holidays.

The canned supply squeaked through pumpkin-pie season – barely. After that, a full-scale squash-cession ensued.

In June of this year, The Washington Post reported that Libby’s total packed-pumpkin inventory had dwindled to six cans. Pumpkin-monium ensued, with the canned stuff gaining the cache of caviar. Libby’s canned pumpkin could be found selling on eBay for anywhere from $6 to $30 per can.

Last spring, Libby’s tried to curb another cucurbit crisis by contracting acreage beyond the Illinois Pumpkin Belt. That included a 1,200-acre chunk of land in Michigan’s Oceana County, which enjoyed a good crop this year.

Libby’s also planted this year’s crop earlier than usual to help get its canned product on shelves as quickly as possible. By late September, the outlook was favorable: The harvest was one-third done, and this year’s crop appears healthy. The weather has also cooperated. Forecasts are warm and dry – ideal for pumpkin picking.

“You might be able to find a can or two on the shelf now,” Filley says. “It should be easier to find the closer we get to Thanksgiving.”

Leiseth is a little less optimistic. “We’re still going to be behind the 8-ball going into Thanksgiving,” he says. “As they start harvesting this year, they’re already a year behind because the shelves are empty.”

Once shoppers do find pumpkin, they will notice one thing: It costs slightly more.

Nestle is raising its suggested retail price by 20 cents to $1.79 for a 15-ounce can, according to Associated Press reports. The company has attributed the 12-percent increase to cover the higher costs of growing this year’s crop.

Still, pumpkinphiles will likely pay the price – as long as they can find their pumpkin puree.

“I think it’s going to make everyone’s Thanksgiving a lot happier,” Megan Jury of Moorhead says at the prospect of a Great Pumpkin Comeback. “I know, for me, Thanksgiving isn’t Thanksgiving without pumpkin pie.”

This story also contains information from the Associated Press, The Washington Post, USA Today, The New York Times and The Christian Science Monitor.



Readers can reach Forum reporter Tammy Swift at (701) 241-5525

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