UNITED STATES NEWS

Water woes, hot summers and labor costs are haunting pumpkin farmers in the West

Oct 29, 2023, 5:30 AM

Hudson, CO. (AP) —

Alan Mazzotti can see the Rocky Mountains about 30 miles west of his pumpkin patch in northeast Colorado on a clear day. He could tell the snow was abundant last winter, and verified it up close when he floated through fresh powder alongside his wife and three sons at the popular Winter Park Resort.

But one season of above-average snowfall wasn’t enough to refill the dwindling reservoir he relies on to irrigate his pumpkins. He received news this spring that his water delivery would be about half of what it was from the previous season, so he planted just half of his typical pumpkin crop. Then heavy rains in May and June brought plenty of water and turned fields into a muddy mess, preventing any additional planting many farmers might have wanted to do.

“By time it started raining and the rain started to affect our reservoir supplies and everything else, it was just too late for this year,” Mazzotti said.

For some pumpkin growers in states like Texas, New Mexico and Colorado, this year’s pumpkin crop was a reminder of the water challenges hitting agriculture across the Southwest and West as human-caused climate change exacerbates drought and heat extremes. Some farmers lost 20% or more of their predicted yields; others, like Mazzotti, left some land bare. Labor costs and inflation are also narrowing margins, hitting farmers’ ability to profit off what they sell to garden centers and pumpkin patches.

This year’s thirsty gourds are a symbol of the reality that farmers who rely on irrigation must continue to face season after season: they have to make choices, based on water allotments and the cost of electricity to pump it out of the ground, about which acres to plant and which crops they can gamble on to make it through hotter and drier summers.

Pumpkins can survive hot, dry weather to an extent, but this summer’s heat, which broke world records and brought temperatures well over 100 degrees Fahrenheit (38 degrees Celsius) to agricultural fields across the country, was just too much, said Mark Carroll, a Texas A&M extension agent for Floyd County, which he calls the “pumpkin capital” of the state.

“It’s one of the worst years we’ve had in several years,” Carroll said. Not only did the hot, dry weather surpass what irrigation could make up for, but pumpkins also need cooler weather to be harvested or they’ll start to decompose during the shipping process, sometimes disintegrating before they even arrive at stores.

America’s pumpkin powerhouse, Illinois, had a successful harvest on par with the last two years, according to the Illinois Farm Bureau. But this year it was so hot into the harvest season in Texas that farmers had to decide whether to risk cutting pumpkins off the vines at the usual time or wait and miss the start of the fall pumpkin rush. Adding to the problem, irrigation costs more as groundwater levels continue to drop — driving some farmers’ energy bills to pump water into the thousands of dollars every month.

Lindsey Pyle, who farms 950 acres of pumpkins in North Texas about an hour outside Lubbock, has seen her energy bills go up too, alongside the cost of just about everything else, from supplies and chemicals to seed and fuel. She lost about 20% of her yield. She added that pumpkins can be hard to predict earlier in the growing season because the vines might look lush and green, but not bloom and produce fruit if they aren’t getting enough water.

Steven Ness, who grows pinto beans and pumpkins in central New Mexico, said the rising cost of irrigation as groundwater dwindles is an issue across the board for farmers in the region. That can inform what farmers choose to grow, because if corn and pumpkins use about the same amount of water, they might get more money per acre for selling pumpkins, a more lucrative crop.

But at the end of the day, “our real problem is groundwater, … the lack of deep moisture and the lack of water in the aquifer,” Ness said. That’s a problem that likely won’t go away because aquifers can take hundreds or thousands of years to refill after overuse, and climate change is reducing the very rain and snow needed to recharge them in the arid West.

Jill Graves, who added a pumpkin patch to her blueberry farm about an hour east of Dallas about three years ago, said they had to give up on growing their own pumpkins this year and source them from a wholesaler. Graves said the pumpkins she bought rotted more quickly than in past years, but it was better than what little they grew themselves.

Still, she thinks they’ll try again next year. “They worked perfect the first two years,” she said. “We didn’t have any problems.”

Mazzotti, for his part, says that with not enough water, you “might as well not farm” — but even so, he sees labor as the bigger issue. Farmers in Colorado have been dealing with water cutbacks for a long time, and they’re used to it. However, pumpkins can’t be harvested by machine like corn can, so they require lots of people to determine they’re ripe, cut them off the vines and prepare them for shipping.

He hires guest workers through the H-2A program, but Colorado recently instituted a law ensuring farmworkers to be paid overtime — something most states don’t require. That makes it tough to maintain competitive prices with places where laborers are paid less, and the increasing costs of irrigation and supplies stack onto that, creating what Mazzotti calls a “no-win situation.”

He’ll keep farming pumpkins for a bit longer, but “there’s no future after me,” he said. “My boys won’t farm.”

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Walling reported from Chicago.

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Read more of AP’s climate coverage at http://www.apnews.com/climate-and-environment

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Follow Melina Walling and Brittany Peterson on X, formerly known as Twitter: @MelinaWalling. and @BrittanyKPeters

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Associated Press climate and environmental coverage receives support from several private foundations. See more about AP’s climate initiative here. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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Water woes, hot summers and labor costs are haunting pumpkin farmers in the West