COLLEGE STATION — Pumpkins of all sizes have started rolling into grocery stores and vegetable stands from the Texas High Plains, the beginning of an avalanche of the popular orange gourds that won’t stop until just before Halloween.
“What we have here is a truly charismatic vegetable,” said Dr. Roland Roberts, a vegetable specialist with the Texas Agricultural Extension Service in Lubbock.
Pumpkins signal fall, harvest and Halloween, he said, and many wind up gracing centerpieces on dining room tables, loafing in groups on the front porch, or wearing a toothy grin in a window.
“For art objects, they don’t make for bad pies, either,” Roberts added, “especially the variety Small Sugar.”
The month-long harvest season is just beginning on what looks like a good crop in the Texas pumpkin patch, situated mostly on just 3,000 to 4,000 acres in five South Plains counties — Lubbock, Floyd, Bailey, Hale and Lamb.
Even so, in a good year, a farmer there can produce 30,000 to 40,000 pounds of pumpkins per acre. That’s pumpkins a-plenty for all of Texas, with enough left over to truck out to surrounding states, throughout the South and to points along the East Coast.
It’s a bit early to tell, but this year’s crop may not be quite that abundant.
“We have a lot of late-planted, therefore later-maturing pumpkins,” Roberts said. “A lot of growers didn’t plant until July. That’s getting on the late-risk side. The June-planted crop is coloring well.”
Gary Carthel and his brother are cotton farmers who have been growing pumpkins for 15 years on a 200-acre patch in Floyd County, which usually grows more pumpkins than most other Texas counties combined.
“Our yields are going to be down a bit this year,” he said, but the drought had little impact because nearly all the commercial pumpkin growers irrigate their fields.
“We lost some of the crop to hail and have been hit by diseases brought on by some recent wet weather.”
Even so, what’s survived looks good and should get a good price for his business, Heptad Vegetable and Specialty Crops in Floydada, Carthel said.
“We’re looking at getting 6 1/2 to 7 cents a pound,” he said, adding that consumers should be able to find 20-pound pumpkins in stores for about $2.25 to $2.50.
Carthel estimated that 75 percent of the 2,000 acres of pumpkins in Floyd County are planted for the 20-pounders that make the best size for carving jack- o’-lanterns. Howden is the variety that most farmers there are growing.
“Most farmers also are growing some Big Macs and Big Moons — these are the huge pumpkins that range up to 100 pounds or more and require two men to lift,” Carthel said.
A good part of the rest of the acreage is planted in pie pumpkins, the best for eating. These are 8 to 10 inches in diameter, weigh 6 to 8 pounds, are round, ribbed and bright orange. Their flesh is sweet and fine-textured, and rinds are thick.
Eating a little pumpkin turns out to be good for you, too.
“One-half cup of cooked pumpkin supplies enough vitamin A for one day’s needs and small amounts of iron, thiamin and riboflavin,” said Dr. Dymple Cooksey, Extension Service nutrition specialist in College Station. “It’s also low in calories. A half cup of unseasoned pumpkin contains only 38 calories.”
However, pumpkin is highly perishable and must be cooked the same day it is cut open, she said. Otherwise, the insides quickly mold to a feathery black.
Dr. Dick Edwards, Extension food marketing specialist in College Station, suggested that consumers would be wise to buy their pumpkins early in the month, when selection likely will be best, and store them for use later on.
“Keep your pumpkins in a cool, dry place, and they will do fine for several months,” he said.
Edwards noted that supermarkets in October will offer other harvest specials besides pumpkins. It should be a good month for fall fruits, he said, and consumers should find good prices for apples selling for 79 cents to 89 cents per pound, while grocers will knock off about 10 cents per pound for pears from Washington and Oregon and grapes from California.
Look for specials on sweet potatoes running between 39 cents and 49 cents per pound, Edwards said.
The winter vegetable crops will make their debut in October, he said, with broccoli, brussels sprouts and cabbages in good supply. Meat cuts are still relatively inexpensive. The deep discounts seen in September will continue through October.
“One difference is that we’re seeing really good prices on the prime beef cuts,” Edwards said. New York strips and T-bone steaks will sell from $3.50 to $3.99 per pound — up to $1.50 off the regular retail prices.
Beef prices will trend upward in the coming months once the cattle cycle works through the heavy sell off of animals caused by the drought.
“Higher-priced cattle will then start coming off the feedlots,” he said, “and we’ll see markups at the meat counter maybe by November. Once beef starts climbing, pork and chicken will follow suit.”
The drought has meant sharp increases in feed costs, which cattle, hog and poultry producers will pass along to consumers.
Seafood specials will be advertised in October, Edwards said, but they won’t compare with the bargains found in red meat.
Cooler weather will bring specials on hot cereals, soups, sausage and bacon. Sales on coffee may see discounts of up to 20 percent.
“Bite-sized candy packaged for Halloween will get a big push at the end of the month,” Edwards said. “Bargain hunters will find some good buys on candy after Halloween.”