If Alan Ard had a choice, he would pick dry weather over wet conditions every time.
But that matter is out of Ard’s hands, and that’s why he feels lucky that this year’s pumpkin crop didn’t suffer from the dry summer.
The owner of Ard’s Farm in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, Ard plants 16 acres of pumpkins that are used for a pick-your-own business, his family’s farm market and for wholesale distribution.
The growing season in central Pennsylvania was extremely dry, Ard said, and if it wasn’t for irrigation, his crop would’ve been in trouble.
“When you have extreme weather conditions, one way or the other there’s problems,” he said. “But for pumpkins, I’ll take dry over wet because disease management is a lot less when it’s dry.”
While he persevered through drought by irrigating his crop, Ard did have issues with powdery mildew late in the season when things were hot and dry.
And when the crop was just planted, there was another challenge as well.
“Mice dug up a ton of my seeds. I’m 100% no-till and that increases rodent pressure, and planting a pumpkin seed is like putting a steak out there for them,” Ard said. “That was my biggest issue this year.”
In the western part of the state, the weather wasn’t as much of an issue for some growers. Vic Cheeseman, of Cheeseman Farms in Portersville, said his 15-acre pumpkin crop is one of the best he’s ever raised.
Aside from using a fungicide treatment in mid-July to combat powdery mildew, Cheeseman said he didn’t experience any issues from dry weather.
“We plant all our pumpkins in bottom ground, and in a dry year they do pretty good because of the moisture that’s already there,” Cheeseman said. “Last year with all the rain, the pumpkins laid in water and we didn’t get anything, but that wasn’t the case this year.”
Cheeseman added his farm did get hit with a light frost recently that knocked the vines down, but the pumpkins were fine.
“They have nice, green stems and are plentiful,” he said. “I’m happy with it.”
The pumpkin crop at Rohrbach’s Farm in Catawissa, Columbia County, actually benefited, in a roundabout way, from the cold spring temperatures.
Denise Bosworth, who operates the farm and a market with her brother, Mark Rohrbach, said they planted more pumpkins this year after witnessing losses to the peach and strawberry crops in the spring.
The added plantings, Bosworth said, helped make up for decreased per-acre production resulting from a dry summer.
“The orange pumpkins did well, but we had to irrigate,” Bosworth said. “Some of the fields are difficult to run irrigation to, so we transported water with a 1,100-gallon tank.”
Still, the challenging times aren’t over for many pumpkin growers in the state. Those who use their crop to support fall agritourism activities and pick-your-own businesses have been forced to make changes due to COVID-19 restrictions.
Bosworth said her family has postponed public hay rides to the pumpkin patch and closed the children’s playland attraction.
But with the pumpkin patch and corn maze still open, Bosworth extended the hours for those attractions to give people more time to visit and spread out.
“We opened it in mid-September and we’re headed to our busiest weekends of the year, and so far people just really appreciate that we’ve moved forward with this,” she said. “We’ve been here for 65 years and it’s what we’re known for.”
At Cheeseman Farms, the virus restrictions presented a unusual dilemma.
Butler County, where the farm is located, was one of four western Pennsylvania counties to sue Gov. Tom Wolf in May over business shutdown orders.
Cheeseman said his farm is still holding its annual pumpkin festival, complete with hay rides, and the crowds have been strong. He added that farm employees are wearing masks, but only about one-third of the customers have chosen to do so.
“We’ve been limiting the number of people on the hay wagons, but most things we’ve done the same way we always have,” Cheeseman said. “Through the first two weekends there haven’t been any problems.”
As October progresses, he expects the crowds to get larger. It’s shaping up to be one of the busiest years on the farm, he said.
Ard has discontinued the hayride to the pumpkin patch and limited how many people can enter the corn maze.
Still, it’s shaping up to be a busy fall season.
“We’re not off that much from last year,” Ard said. “People are just glad we’re doing something so they can get out.”
The appreciation from the public is evident on the Rohrbach farm as well.
Bosworth said that 2020 has been difficult on everyone, and the simple fact that the pumpkin patch is open brightens the day for many customers and the family.
“It’s definitely given us hope and momentum after a challenging year. So many people visiting the pumpkin patch have said it feels like normalcy again,” she said.