WEATHER CARVES INTO PUMPKIN SUPPLIES

NEW YORK - Although rainy spring weather mixed with summer heat might have scared some of the pumpkins away, the resulting drop in production and slightly higher prices have not hollowed out sales.While central and southeastern Massachusetts appear to be hardest hit in the New England area, other regions like Michigan and New Mexico fared well with pumpkin crops.Generally, pumpkin seeds are planted

NEW YORK - Although rainy spring weather mixed with summer heat might have scared some of the pumpkins away, the resulting drop in production and slightly higher prices have not hollowed out sales.

While central and southeastern Massachusetts appear to be hardest hit in the New England area, other regions like Michigan and New Mexico fared well with pumpkin crops.

Generally, pumpkin seeds are planted in May, but that month Massachusetts had its worst flooding in 70 years, and many seeds were washed away or rotted in the ground. That, combined with the hot and humid summer, caused some of the pumpkins to ripen early and spoil. In some parts of the Midwest, weather conditions encouraged the development of two types of fungi, which caused pumpkins to mold and decompose earlier.

"The pumpkin selection has been affected a bit and the rainy weather has been a factor," said Mona Golub, spokeswoman for Price Chopper, Schenectady, N.Y. "The pumpkins that are out there are a bit smaller, there's a shorter supply and they tend to break down more quickly, but the market's been steady."

Price Chopper gets its pumpkins from several different growers throughout the Northeast, and has no plans to seek out other sources.

"In general, the quality of pumpkins and gourds in the Northeast is excellent. There's really no reason for us to purchase product in other parts of the country," Golub said.

Bashas' Supermarkets, Chandler, Ariz., isn't experiencing any issues because most of the disease-related problems are from pumpkins grown east of the Mississippi, produce buyer Jack Armstrong told SN.

"The only factor affecting us right now is that the price is up a little on pumpkins because supplies are shorter than last year," Armstrong said.

Pumpkins prices this year are higher than last year and Golub said it's partly due to the diminished supply.

"Pricing is up about a nickel a pound on carving pumpkins, and a little more on pie pumpkins and specialty pumpkins," Armstrong said. "Regular retail is around 29 cents a pound and the sale pricing could be as low as 15 to 19 cents. Small pie pumpkins were in short supply last year."

Pumpkin prices vary at Publix Super Markets. While the cost has increased, Publix was able to maintain the retail price, said Maria Brous, spokeswoman for the Lakeland, Fla.-based chain. The majority of Publix's pumpkins come from Texas, New Mexico, Michigan and Arkansas.

Demand is about normal right now, retailers told SN.

"Consumers are starting to purchase some pumpkins now, but most of the sales fall the week before Halloween," Armstrong said.

Bashas' buys most of its pumpkins from farms in New Mexico, but also gets some from Colorado, Utah, California and Washington.

Price Chopper is seeing strong demand already, Golub said. Despite the weather-ravaged crops, she said there always seems to be an abundance of pumpkins and people adjust to whatever sizes are available.

Publix sells jack-o'-lantern pumpkins through Halloween, though pie pumpkins will be carried through the end of the year, Brous said.

Pumpkin sales drop off around noon on Halloween for Bashas'. For Price Chopper, last week and this week are expected to be the peak period for sales this year.

"Generally, at that point, there's very little still available and very little demand," Golub said.

Price Chopper focuses on creating a sense of the fall season through displays that often include other seasonal items.

"It is traditional within our company to build bountiful displays of pumpkins outside the store anywhere we can," Golub said. "We cross-merchandise with Carrie mums, cornstalks, gourds, pumpkin-carving kits and even cider doughnuts. It's all to give the display a real seasonal feel."

Bashas' cross-merchandises its pumpkins with apples, apple dip, cider, candy, Indian corn, gourds and other Halloween-related items, Armstrong said.

"Pumpkins are displayed in the lobby in bins and many stores put them out on the sidewalk. We create the feeling of a big pumpkin patch," he said.

Publix gives individual stores the freedom to get creative with pumpkin displays. As a result, every store has a different look.

"In some locations, the entire store promotes a fall harvest," Brous said. "In others, wagons dripping with pumpkins are parked in the vestibule of the store. Yet, in other locations, bins are placed in the produce departments."