North Fork pumpkin crop battered by heavy rain, humidity

BETH YOUNG PHOTO | Pumpkins out in the rain on Youngs Avenue in Southold.

If you want true local pumpkins, it’s a wise bet to get them early this year.

When the entire Northeast corridor was battered by Hurricane Irene on Aug. 28, pumpkins and other crops were damaged by the high winds and rain. But since then, a fungal blight has been at work in the fields, compounding the losses, said  vegetable specialist Sandra Menasha of Cornell University’s Long Island Horticultural Research and Extension Center in Baiting Hollow.

Ms. Menasha said that wholesale pumpkin prices have doubled regionally in the past week, and that local growers, who tend to turn to farms in Pennsylvania when there is a shortage of North Fork pumpkins, are having trouble finding pumpkins everywhere they look due to the widespread damage from the huge storm.

She said that many pumpkins here suffered from phytophthora blight, a fungal disease that destroy’s the fruit’s structural integrity.

Aquebogue pumpkin farmer Jim Stakey said he will need to supplement his crop with pumpkins from a grower in western New York. He said that this is the earliest in recent memory that he has had to supplement the 18 varieties of pumpkins that he grows here. Mr. Stakey said that he hopes to be able to hold his pumpkin prices steady at 59 cents per pound.

“I’m remaining optimistic that we can all hold our prices,” he said. “The hurricane could have been a lot worse. It never happened like it was played up to be.”

Mr. Stakey said that his corn maze on West Lane was flattened by the heavy winds, but that it has since recovered and will be open this fall. He added that some varieties of pumpkins, including the flat, cheese-wheel shaped Cinderella and the unique Turk’s Turban, have been hit hard, while a sugar pumpkin called Field Trip and a Jack ‘O Lantern pumpkin called Gladiator have fared well.

“If we didn’t have some bad, we wouldn’t appreciate the good,” he said.

Southold pumpkin farmer Al Krupski, however, says that his crop has fared even better than last year, despite the hurricane.

“Our pumpkins look really good this year. We’re really happy with our crop. We feel bad for people who’ve been having trouble. We’ve certainly been there,” he said. “We’ve been growing pumpkins since 1976 and we’ve seen it all.”

Mr. Krupski said that he grows 10 varieties of pumpkins and an equal number of winter squash.

“Some have more disease resistance. Some pollinate better in cooler or hotter weather,” he said. “We look at all the different variables mother nature is going to throw at you, and we hope for the best.”

Mr. Krupski said that he wasn’t aware of the wholesale spike in pumpkin prices this week, since he doesn’t buy or sell any of his pumpkins on the wholesale market.

“That’s a clear indication of the rain they’re having upstate and in Pennsylvania,” he said. “We try to grow our own. A lot of people just set up a stand for October. There’s no guarantee when you’re growing your own. Sometimes you have good and sometimes you have bad years. We’ve been on both sides of that.”

Mr. Krupski added that his haunted corn maze was in a spot sheltered from Irene’s winds, and none of the ghosts were scared out of the corn by the storm.

“They’re still in there,” he said.