The Annual Canned Pumpkin Freak-out: Is It a Big Hoax?

updated May 1, 2019
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(Image credit: Kelli Foster)

It’s become as traditional as trick-or-treating: Every fall, it seems, newscasters somberly warn us about the coming pumpkin shortage, urging us to stock up before the ransacking of supermarket shelves.

Then, we rush to the store, only to see an end-cap display overflowing with canned pumpkin. What gives?

Before you shrug off the next pumpkin-shortage rumors with a “yeah, right,” we talked to growers, canning producers, agricultural experts, and supermarket reps to find out if there’s really any need for concern. Is the pumpkin shortage a big hoax, a marketing line? Or is there really a supply issue at work?

(Image credit: hutch photography)

Pumpkins Need Good Weather (in Morton!)

Like any crop, pumpkins thrive under certain conditions, and since by far the bulk of the country’s pumpkins are grown in one place, the overall supply is very sensitive to the weather in that one place: Morton, Illinois, the pumpkin capital of the world.

First off, the good news: We don’t have to worry this year, as the 2016 harvest is a solid one, thanks to favorable conditions in Morton. What’s good weather, for a pumpkin? Dry weather, within reason, is what pumpkins love. After all, it’s a vine crop with large leaves, low to the ground, making it susceptible to fungus and soil-borne disease, explains John Ackerman, of Ackerman Family Farms in Morton, which grows pie pumpkins for Libby’s, and is also open to the jack-o’-lantern-seeking public.

“It is an above-average year; not record-setting, but very good,” he says. The weather was dry early on, and turned wet later, but after the fruit was already set on the vine.

Last year was a different matter: In 2015, it rained early on, so farmers couldn’t get everything planted, and then some rain damaged forming blossoms.

So, That One Crummy Year Really Scarred Us All

But to really understand why we are traumatized by past pumpkin shortages, we have to go back to 2008. It was a fairly glum season, but 2009 started off well — until relentless, yes, rain, messed with the harvest. By mid-2010, supermarket shelves were truly, actually, all-the-way devoid of pumpkin.

Libby’s was literally down to six cans of pumpkin, which the company’s director of marketing kept locked up in his office. Cans were going for up to $30 on eBay.

By September of 2010, however, the shortage was over, once the new year’s crop started rolling onto shelves. (Fun fact: At Libby’s, pumpkins go from farm-to-can it in a matter of four hours.)

Now, Here’s Something You Wouldn’t Expect

September really is the key month to think about here. In fact, you might have a hazy recollection of some “pumpkin shortage” headlines a little earlier this year. While I’d love to blame it all on the rain, this was also partly the faults of beer makers. Beer makers? Yup! Brewers need the stuff earlier than the rest of us in order to get pumpkin beers on shelves by September, and they had a heck of a time at the end of this summer finding enough canned purée due to the lackluster 2015 crop, leading to an early run on pumpkin.

Pulling off this year’s ale wasn’t easy for Brian Nelson, head brewer for Virginia’s Hardywood Park craft brewery, which now turns out 420 barrels of its Farmhouse Pumpkin ale, up from the first 40-barrel batch five years ago. The local farmer who usually sows seeds early to get pumpkins in time for the beer with was hurt by — what else? — rain, so Nelson had to call around to several farmers and suppliers, scrambling to get purée.

Just to be safe, he has a plan in place, lest it happen again: “We’ll get pumpkins now, process them, and freeze them for next year,” he says.

The Pumpkin Outlook for 2016

Fear not, though — Libby’s, responsible for roughly 90 percent of the country’s canned-pumpkin supply — says pumpkin production is in “fine shape” this year, although it may “tighten” after the holidays, once we get into 2017. (About 80 percent of sales happen from September to December.)

For the most part, reps for supermarket chains, including Publix and Price Chopper, also told us that they did not foresee any shortfalls. However, Giant Food stores are currently experiencing supply issues. “Our suppliers have assured us that availability will improve leading up to the Thanksgiving holiday,” a rep says optimistically.

Some stores did start running out of canned pumpkin as early as the end of this summer, says Roz O’Hearn, a Libby’s spokesperson. So they had to wait to get orders filled until Libby’s started canning the new crop last month.

Pumpkin, You See, Is Truly (Truly!) Seasonal

See, here’s the thing about pumpkin — in a can or out of it — once the year’s crop is gone from shelves, it’s gone.

That can be hard to believe, when we’re used to buying pretty much any produce year-round. As a society, “we’re getting further away from the rhythm of the seasons in farming,” says O’Hearn.

To keep up with growing demand (we’re looking at you, pumpkin-flavored-anything fanatics), Libby’s has been planting more seeds on more acreage in Morton, where they contract with farmers. And luckily, pumpkins grow fantastically in Morton, because Illinois is the sweet spot. It’s far enough south to allow for a long growing season, but far enough north to keep excessive heat and diseases at bay, Ackerman explains: “That’s why they call us the ‘orange belt.'”

One last morsel of good news: Pumpkin production is way up in the last decade or so — about 30 percent, between 2000 and 2014, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

So, if you hear of a shortage, believe it. But know that it may be last year’s crop in the can, running low on shelves before the new season makes it way into stores. Or, in really bad years, it’s because the pumpkin crop has failed.

This is one canned good that is just as seasonal as anything you find at the farmers market, and isn’t that a good thing?

Of course, you can totally make your own if you want: Make Pumpkin Purée