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Pumpkin growers in the western region are facing challenges with water shortages, high temperatures, and expensive labor.

Pumpkin growers in the western region are facing challenges with water shortages, high temperatures, and expensive labor.

On a day with good visibility, Alan Mazzotti is able to view the Rocky Mountains from his pumpkin patch in northeast Colorado, which is approximately 30 miles away. He was able to determine that there was a large amount of snowfall last winter, and he confirmed this by skiing with his wife and three sons at the well-known Winter Park Resort.

However, despite experiencing a season of higher-than-average snowfall, the reservoir that is crucial for watering his pumpkin crops remains depleted. He was informed in the spring that his water supply would only be half of what it was in the previous season, leading him to plant only half of his usual pumpkin crop. The excessive rainfall in May and June resulted in waterlogged fields, making it impossible for many farmers to plant any additional crops they may have desired.

According to Mazzotti, the rain began and had a negative impact on our reservoir supplies and other things, but it was already too late for the current year.

This year, pumpkin farmers in states such as Texas, New Mexico, and Colorado faced challenges due to water scarcity, a problem that is becoming more severe in the Southwest and West due to human-caused climate change. As a result, some farmers experienced a 20% decrease in their expected yields, while others like Mazzotti had to leave some of their land unplanted. In addition, rising labor costs and inflation have also impacted farmers’ profits from selling their pumpkins to garden centers and patches.

Alan Mazzotti walks through one of his pumpkin fields, Oct. 26, 2023, in Hudson, Colorado.

On October 26, 2023, Alan Mazzotti strolls through a pumpkin field in Hudson, Colorado.

The current year’s parched squash serve as a representation of the harsh truth that farmers who depend on irrigation must consistently confront: they are forced to decide which plots of land to cultivate and which crops to risk investing in, taking into account their water allocations and the expensive electricity needed to extract it from the earth, in order to survive increasingly scorching and arid summers.

According to Mark Carroll, an extension agent for Texas A&M in Floyd County, known as the “pumpkin capital” of the state, pumpkins can withstand some hot and dry conditions. However, this year’s scorching temperatures, reaching over 100 degrees Fahrenheit (38 degrees Celsius), were too extreme and led to damage in agricultural fields across the country.

According to Carroll, this has been one of the most challenging years we have experienced in recent times. The high temperatures and lack of rain were too much for irrigation to compensate for. Additionally, pumpkins require cooler temperatures for harvesting, as they may begin to rot during transportation and may even disintegrate before reaching stores.

Illinois, known as America’s top producer of pumpkins, experienced a successful harvest that was comparable to the previous two years, as reported by the Illinois Farm Bureau. However, due to unusually high temperatures during the harvest season in Texas, farmers were faced with the decision of either cutting pumpkins from the vines at the usual time or risking missing out on the lucrative fall pumpkin market. Additionally, the declining levels of groundwater have resulted in increased irrigation costs, leading to energy bills in the thousands of dollars for some farmers every month.

Lindsey Pyle, a pumpkin farmer in North Texas, has noticed an increase in her energy expenses as well as the cost of various supplies and materials such as chemicals, seeds, and fuel. Due to these rising costs, she has also experienced a decrease of about 20% in her pumpkin crop yield. Pyle also mentioned that predicting the success of pumpkins early in the growing season can be challenging as healthy-looking vines may not necessarily produce fruit if they are not receiving enough water.

Steven Ness, a farmer in central New Mexico, expressed concerns about the increasing expense of irrigation due to the decreasing supply of groundwater. This is a widespread issue for farmers in the area and it can influence their crop choices. For instance, if both corn and pumpkins require similar amounts of water, farmers may opt to grow pumpkins as they can be sold for a higher price per acre, making it a more profitable crop.

However, the main issue at hand is the depletion of groundwater due to insufficient moisture and a lack of water in the aquifer, according to Ness. Unfortunately, this problem is not likely to disappear quickly as it takes hundreds or thousands of years for aquifers to replenish after being overused. Additionally, climate change is exacerbating the situation by decreasing the amount of precipitation needed to recharge these aquifers in the dry western region.

Jill Graves, who incorporated a pumpkin patch into her blueberry farm located roughly an hour east of Dallas three years ago, shared that they were unable to successfully grow their own pumpkins this year and had to acquire them from a supplier. Graves noted that the pumpkins they purchased had a shorter shelf life compared to previous years, but it was still a better alternative than the small amount they were able to cultivate on their own.

However, she believes they will attempt it again in the following year. “The first two years went smoothly,” she stated. “We did not encounter any issues.”

According to Mazzotti, insufficient water for farming makes it futile. However, he believes that labor is a more pressing concern. Colorado farmers have been accustomed to facing water shortages for a considerable period. Harvesting pumpkins cannot be automated like corn, so it requires a large workforce to determine their ripeness, cut them from the vines, and prepare them for transportation.

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 will continue growing pumpkins for a little while, but he stated that there will be no future in farming after him. He added that his sons will not continue the family tradition of farming.