Pumpkin harvest 2012

Farm worker Daniel Castro, works in the pumpkin patch at LaGates Farm Market on Bayshore Road in North Cape May. This year has been a bumper crop for pumpkins for local farmers. (Dale Gerhard/Press of Atlantic City)

Dale Gerhard

Many farmers throughout the state reported a devastating pumpkin crop last year due to the numerous heavy storms that hit the region last summer.

But with less rainfall this year, farmers say the yield of pumpkins has been much better — just in time for Halloween.

Lynne Richmond, spokeswoman for the state Department of Agriculture, said the state does not have statistics yet for this year but she has heard anecdotally from farmers that it was a good year for pumpkins. The state harvested 16.2 million pounds in 2011, almost half of the 31.1 million pounds harvested in 2010, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service.

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“This year, the pumpkins got dry weather when they needed it and rain when they needed it,” Richmond said.

Ken Harris, owner of the Marlboro Farm Market in Bridgeton and LeGates Farm Market in Lower Township, said the crop this year was the best in his 32 years of growing pumpkins.

His farms collected thousands of pumpkins on 32 total acres, he said. And this year was superior in terms of quality, as well as the numbers he was able to harvest.

“It was as good as it gets,” he said.

According to a study by Rutgers University, the southern part of state had 61.73 inches of rain during 2011 — more than 15 inches higher than the average. But through September 2012, the southern part of the state has received 29.40 inches. The biggest difference was the month of August, when 17.78 inches fell in 2011 compared with 5.11 inches this year.

Last year represented the highest amount of rainfall recorded in the study, which dates to 1895.

But because of Halloween, the demand for pumpkins continues to increase, Richmond said. Many farmers provide an agricultural tourism component to their farms so people come and visit. They offer corn mazes and hayrides, but the most important aspect is they have pumpkins for people to pick out and purchase, she said.

“Pumpkins are a major part of the operation,” she said. “They are linked — fall and pumpkins.”

Harris admits that every year pumpkins can be a crapshoot. He said they are vulnerable to disease, so he plants his pumpkin patch in different areas every year. Pumpkins are planted in early June and harvested in September.

“It’s one of the trickiest crops,” he said. “You really have to make sure you have enough water — and not too much.”

Tom Pontano, owner of Tom Pontano and Son Farms in Vineland, said the summer was actually too hot for his pumpkin crop. He estimates he harvested about 500.

“You never know what’s going to happen with pumpkins,” he said.

Pontano sells his pumpkins on site, but this year he ran out in early October. Richmond said it’s common for local farmers who do not yield enough pumpkins to have them shipped in from other regions.

Rick VanVranken, an agricultural agent for the Rutgers Cooperative Extension of Atlantic County, said pumpkin growers also will grow their own varieties of pumpkins to catch customers’ eyes.

They will grow pumpkins of different colors and shapes, he said. Some varieties have warts and others do not, he said.

LeGates clerk Marilyn Mastalski said customers are particular about the type of pumpkins they buy.

“They want something with a nice smooth surface they can use as a jack-o’-lantern or (to) paint on,” she said.

Some customers will eat the pumpkin, she said. “They’ll roast the seeds or use it for pies,”Mastalski said.

Lower Township resident Ann Hadik bought a pumpkin at LeGates. She planned to use it for decoration at her home. She said she looks for a bright, colorful pumpkin that will go with her flowers.

“Pumpkins are always good,” she said. “They’re colorful — and they’re fall.”

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Follow Joel Landau on Twitter @landaupressofac

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