The Great Pumpkin Shortage Is Over, but Worries Remain

The industry is recovering from last year's Great Pumpkin Shortage, but larger changes are needed to prevent future risk to Thanksgiving pies.
The industry is recovering from last year's Great Pumpkin Shortage, but larger changes are needed to prevent future risk to Thanksgiving pies.

Along with turkey, cranberries and sweet potatoes, pumpkin pie is a Thanksgiving standard, a reassuring link to celebrations past, present and future. Let Halloween have its eye-catching candy and let Christmas enjoy its elaborate cookies: on Thanksgiving, the mild orange pie evokes the simple pleasures of autumn harvests.

But in 2009, rain threatened to destroy this basic part of the Thanksgiving celebration, leaving millions of families bereft of holiday desserts. A year later, America's pumpkin industry has rebounded, but the lessons and worries of 2009 remain.

Lack of Diversity Threatens Pies

A large part of the reason for the Great Pumpkin Crisis of 2009 was the fact that a single company -- Libby's -- controls an estimated 90% of the world's pumpkin. To make things worse, the food producer, which is owned by Nestle, gets most of its supply of the vibrant orange squash from a single area: Morton, Ill., the self-described "Pumpkin Capital of the World."

Libby's supplies Morton's farmers with seeds for its own personal strain of Dickinson pumpkins, a fast-growing fruit that is two to three times larger than the average pumpkin and has a much larger flesh-to-seed ratio. Farmers then grow between 5,000 and 6,000 acres of the gourds, which get processed at a nearby plant and shipped across the country.

Given Morton's outsized contribution to the world's pumpkin crop, weather in the small Illinois town can have wide-ranging and devastating effects. In 2008, for example, a bad harvest left pumpkin stocks low. Generally, this wouldn't be a major problem; a good year could easily replenish the pumpkin supply. Unfortunately, 2009 was even worse.

Heavy rains
left tractors bogged down in fields and pumpkins rotting on vines. According to Evan Lundee, brand manager for Libby's, only six cans were left in the company's warehouse last Thanksgiving. Across the country, as shelves emptied, pumpkin profiteers scalped cans of the precious gourd on eBay. Even now, a year later, some sellers are still offering pumpkin for $6 per can, more than three times its recommended price.

Pumpkin Surplus Coming?

This year, Morton was ready to refill stocks. Farmers planted early and planted extra, which led to an early -- and impressive -- pumpkin harvest. To cover its bases, Libby's also contracted farmers in surrounding states to plant the gourds. Between the shift in planting and the extra acreage, this year's shelves should be groaning under the weight of canned pumpkin.

Even so, pie fans still have much to worry about. To begin with, Libby's has used last year's pumpkin shortage as an excuse to raise prices. Citing their decision to plant extra fields, the food company has added $0.20 to each can, a 12% markup. While not as shocking as the $6 per can price on eBay, it is nonetheless a significant jump.

More worrisome, as last years harvest demonstrated, the reliance on a single strain of pumpkin -- and a single area for most cultivation -- remains a dangerous shortcoming for the industry that could threaten Thanksgiving pies in years to come.