It may not be as all-American as apple pie, but for most, the holidays wouldn’t be the same without that other uniquely American treat - pumpkin pie.
But a wet summer and record rainfall in the central United States last year made that traditional dessert a lot harder to come by.
Suffering from three years of bad weather and low yields, canned pumpkin was getting scarce on many supermarket shelves, forcing pie bakers to scramble for the remaining cans, sometimes buying and selling them at inflated prices on eBay or trying to find a substitution for the orange “super food.”
“It’s been a difficult year,” says Evan Lunde, Marketing Manager for Libby’s Pumpkin. Libby’s Pumpkin, owned by Nestlé, grows and processes around ninety-five percent of all the canned pumpkin in the U.S.
Libby’s processing facility is located in Morton, Illinois, and almost all of the pumpkins are grown within a fifty-mile radius of the plant.
Lunde says it’s the unique soil in the region that makes a good pumpkin. “That’s why they call us the pumpkin capital of the world ... It gets the right amount of water, usually."
That proximity was also part of the problem. Central Illinois was hit hard with rain last fall, causing much of the pumpkin crop to rot away in flooded fields and harvesting machinery unable to operate in the axle-deep mud.
“Every two or three days, you were getting rain, fighting mud,” says Phil Friedrich.
Friedrich’s family has been farming this area for generations, and Phil has been growing pumpkins for thirty-two years.
“It was relentless,” he says. Rainfall was almost 150 percent more than normal - what the water didn’t wipe out, disease caused by the excessive wetness did.
Different from your typical carving or “jack-o'-lantern” pumpkins, canning pumpkins are grown from the Dickinson variety and are usually tan to light brown in color. They grow about the same size as the orange pumpkins that are sold in your local grocery store this time of the year, but have a much thicker orange flesh and less open space in the middle.
Friedman says that this year it’s been better. “It’s October and we are a lot better off than we were last year.”
He says less rain, a hot summer and a staggering cropping technique has helped them harvest about 85 percent of their normal yield this year.
“On any given year we plant about 5000 to 6000 acres, but due to our situation last year, we did plant a lot more. In fact, really a lot more this year,” says Lunde - though he won’t say exactly how much more. “We knew we needed to get back in stock for our consumers who were really pushing us for the product.”
Pumpkins are normally harvested and processed in the fall, and that same supply must last until the next harvest. While most pumpkin is used in the last three months of the year, Libby’s says demand has been growing for the nutritious “Cucurbita," or pumpkin family squash.
Grocery stores are starting to see their shelves restocked now, and according to Lunde, should see a steady supply through this upcoming baking season and also throughout the next year.
That should be plenty for the 50 million pumpkin pies that Libby’s estimates are made each year.
But even so, Lunde says he’s still going to hold onto the last few cans from last year’s harvest. “There actually were six cans left. We did hold on to those cans as kind of a memento of the year and we still have those and they are sitting in my office.”