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FRUITS OF THE HEAT <br> SUMMER'S SWELTER YIELDS A CROP OF PETITE PUMPKINS

Dave Yager stood in his Eden pumpkin patch, where he estimated that the gourds were 10 to 15 percent smaller than average, and admitted, "It's not as nice as usual."

It's a sentiment a lot of pumpkin growers in Western New York are expressing. The pumpkin crop was particularly hard-hit by the very dry summer, though growers said that is not translating into a pumpkin shortage.

"There's still going to be a lot of nice pumpkins out there, but you may have to pay more because the supply is lower," said Alan Erb, a vegetable specialist with the Cornell Cooperative Extension of Erie County.

Joe Pukos certainly noticed the drop-off in size in this year's pumpkin crop.

He won the Great Pumpkin Weigh-Off for the second straight year at the World Pumpkin Confederation contest in Clarence on Saturday, but his winning entry this year was a mere 893.5 pounds, compared with last year's 1,096.8-pound monster.

Pukos, a Leicester pumpkin farmer, saw an even bigger drop in his prize money. He won $1,000 this year, compared with $25,000 last year, when the contest had large European sponsors.

It's tough to say how much more expensive your jack-o'-lantern will be next month. Several growers said that while they may charge more for the pumpkins they sell wholesale, they expect that retail prices on the farms where they are grown will remain pretty much unchanged.

"If (prices) go up, I might go up a dollar," said Yager, who sells almost all of his pumpkins from the front of his home on New Jerusalem Road. "But I try to keep it so it's affordable for the families."

The situation varies among pumpkin patches. Specifically, those who were able to water their pumpkins in June and July, when less than 2 inches of rain was reported, said they saw no real difference in the size of their pumpkins.

"We were fortunate -- we had irrigation," Millie Awald said as workers unloaded the Awalds' trademark giant pumpkins onto the front lawn of their home on Shirley Road in Eden.

But that wasn't the case for all of the pumpkin crop grown by her sons, she said.

"The boys, where they were too far from the water source, had problems," she said. "Pumpkins mature too early if they don't get water."

At the Great Pumpkin Patch on Route 240 in Springville, Marty Wendel said he did not irrigate his pumpkin field.

"We had good numbers, (but) the lack of size is going to hurt the yield," he said. "There are a few bright spots here and there. Some varieties did better than others, but still not real hot."

Whereas pumpkin weights would go up to 75 or 80 pounds in years past, Wendel said this year, he's looking at 40 to 50 pounds. The average pumpkin in the past would be between 15 and 20 pounds, he said; this year, it will be closer to 10 pounds.

The good news is that the quality of the pumpkins looks good.

"When they were growing, they were growing real slow. They grew real solid, with good firm skin and should have a good shelf life this year," Wendel said. "It's the exact opposite of last year, when we had higher water content and more fungus. These pumpkins are so darn solid."

Even farmers who did irrigate their crop, such as Paul Fenton in Batavia, found that the combination of the drought and the high temperatures put a lot of stress on his pumpkins.

"I'm rather happy with what's out there, for what they went through," he said. "That week of near 100-degree temperatures (in early August) was tough on all my crops."

He said that with the dry, hot summer, many of his plants didn't produce the number of pumpkins they normally do.

Fenton's advice for buyers is to shop early if they're picky about the pumpkin they want. As long as they aren't carved until a week or so before Halloween, they'll last.

"Right now, everybody's display is full," he said. "When it comes time to replenish the display, as sales pick up, then things could change, because nobody knows what's out there in the fields until the vines are down and we can get a good look at it."

News Staff Reporter Michael Beebe contributed to this report.

e-mail: jbonfatti@buffnews.com

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