Late June, Carolyn Matthews Eaglehouse of Milky Way Farm in Chester Springs headed out to the pumpkin fields for a routine check. Planting pumpkins for fall, when families begin looking for pumpkins perfect for jack-o'-lantern carving, is something that most local farms rely on for significant revenue. But it didn't take Eaglehouse very long to notice that the pumpkin plants were not where they should be.
"The weather this summer was just goofy," she said. "There were some super-hot days and also lots and lots of rain, and generally speaking, pumpkins do not do well in rain."
If you're looking to pick your own pumpkin this year ahead of Halloween, you might find that there's a scarcity of perfect-looking orange pumpkins waiting to be plucked from their vines.
Milky Way Farm is just one of a handful of local farms dealing with a smaller — or in some cases, nonexistent — pumpkin harvest this year, thanks to unpredictable summer weather and wet conditions. The rain, which continued into late September, has so thoroughly drenched some pumpkin patches that the pumpkins are literally floating around in the fields.
The Philadelphia area got nearly 12 inches of rain between June and August this year, higher than the national total of 8.95 inches.
Eaglehouse said that the farm's pumpkin yield this year is about 35 to 40 percent of what she expects out of a good year. (Milky Way Farm typically brings in pumpkins from farms in Lancaster County to supplement its own supply, but it expects to purchase more pumpkins than usual this year.)
Problems began in late May and early June, as fluctuations between hot and rainy days stressed the plants, causing them to produce more male blossoms than female blossoms.
"Already, you're dealing with fewer chances for pumpkins to grow," Eaglehouse said. "We also had a lot of cloudy mornings in late July and early August, which meant there weren't as many bees out and about pollinating the pumpkins."
South Jersey farms also felt the strain of the extreme summer weather. Duffield's Farm Market in Sewell said that while it had a crop this year, it did not have any big pumpkins. Indian Acres Tree Farm in Medford said that pumpkins it has purchased from other farms to supplement its harvest have disintegrated upon arrival.
Sugartown Strawberries in Malvern is also dealing with a crisis — the farm lost 8.5 acres of pumpkins, or tens and tens of thousands of dollars in revenue, according to farm owner Bob Lange. He called it the worst pumpkin harvest he's seen in 32 years of planting pumpkins, thanks to the fungus and diseases that came after days and days of rain.
"A pumpkin is like a sponge," he said. "It can only take so much water and after that, it's going to start oozing and rotting. That's how we lost 99 percent of our pumpkins this year."
Lange is purchasing pumpkins from a grower in Elverson to sell to farm visitors instead and will be happy with a modest profit this year.
"I don't even want to send people into the fields because they're just full of rotten pumpkins," he said. "The last nail in the coffin would be if we get rainy weekends in October, because those are visitors that we can't get back."
For Hellerick's Family Farm in Doylestown, the troubles started with the germination process. Paul Hellerick, a co-owner of the farm, said that it was difficult planting the pumpkins because the ground was so wet.
"Pumpkins are definitely a major source of revenue for us in the fall," Hellerick said. "We're hoping for some dry weather in the next week or so to help them out a little bit, but if we're looking at not having pumpkins the week before Halloween, we'll definitely bring some in."
The excessive rain also made it difficult for the outer shells of the pumpkins to harden. Pumpkins need to "cure" under the sunlight, so it came as no surprise to Eaglehouse and Hellerick when their pumpkins started collapsing in on themselves. Even if the pumpkins don't collapse, deer and groundhogs can easily break through the soft skin and eat them.