It’s the busiest time of year at many local farms, with hayrides, animals to pet, and apple cider to sip.
Pre-schoolers on a recent field trip at Harvest Valley Farms in Butler County love all these fall activities.
“What vegetable are you going to pick?” asks a woman who works here as the kids huddle around.
“Pumpkins!” they all shout.
Pumpkins, of course, are the highlight every October. But as the kids and their chaperones traipse around the fields, the children learn that not every pumpkin is a keeper.
“That one’s mushy,” one parent points out.
While there are plenty of good contenders at the farm, quite a few pumpkins have gone bad.
Art King, who owns Harvest Valley Farms with his brother and son, recalls the year’s challenging weather as he walks through a muddy field. He comes across a pumpkin gleaming orange in the morning light.
“I’m anxious to see if it’s any good or not,” he says.
At first when he picks it up, it looks promising. Then, he turns it over.
“No, it’s not good,” he says. “See?”
A section on the bottom has turned light gray and slimy. Same goes for another gourd nearby.
“It’s called soft rot,” he says.
King estimates the fungus has ruined 15 percent of his pumpkins.
“I’m going to be honest with you,” he says. “There are not enough pumpkins here for the number of people we are going to have this month, so we will bring more pumpkins into the field.”
He will likely buy surplus pumpkins from other farms or a produce auction to make sure he can meet the local demand.
The culprit behind the fungus is water. Over 46 inches of rain have fallen in the Pittsburgh area this year, according to the National Weather Service. On average, only 30 inches usually fall by this time in October.
Lee Stivers, an educator with Penn State Extension in Washington County, says pathogens love moisture.
“If you talk with most farmers, particularly vegetable farmers, they’ll say they’ll take a dry year over a wet year any time,” she says.
That’s because farmers can water their crops when the weather’s dry.
Despite the year’s heavy rainfall, she offers some assurance based on her 30 years working with farmers. She has yet to encounter a year when there were not enough pumpkins to keep kids busy carving jack-o-lanterns for Halloween.
King recalls a particularly bad season a number of years back.
“I can remember a field of pumpkins we had next to the creek down there,” he says, pointing away from this year’s crop. “It looked like the entire field got frosted, and that was downy mildew.”
He says technological advances have helped prevent a repeat, as well as spraying fungicide. He and Stivers both credit improvements in seeds to make fruits and vegetables more disease-resistant.
King plants his pumpkins in rows, each elevated alongside a shallow ditch where rainwater collects. Black plastic covers the rows to absorb heat, and pumpkin vines stick out.
“You poke a hole in the plastic, put one seed in there, and there’s your pumpkin plant,” he says.
Stivers says more and more farmers are using raised-bed systems instead of growing pumpkins in flat fields.
“It helps them manage a year, whether it’s a wet year like this year because those fields will drain better and the crops are better protected, as well as a dry year because it includes a system of irrigation,” she says.
It’s not totally foolproof. Some of King’s pumpkins have grown into the ditches, and those are the ones where fungus has taken hold.
Regardless, King says one bad year for pumpkins will not devastate the farm because he also sells potatoes, tomatoes, zucchini, and eggplant, among other fruits and vegetables.
He remembers a lesson his dad, who farmed the same property, taught him many years ago.
“‘You have to grow different things because if one thing doesn’t do well, another thing will, and that way you’re covered," he said.
Kieran McLean contributed to this report.