HUDSON, Colo. – Alan Mazzotti can see the Rocky Mountains about 30 miles west of his pumpkin patch in northeastern Colorado on a clear day. He could tell that there had been a lot of snow last winter and confirmed it up close as he floated through fresh powder at the popular Winter Park Resort with his wife and three sons.
But a season of above-average snowfall wasn’t enough to replenish the dwindling supply he relies on to water his pumpkins. This spring he received word that his water delivery would be about half what it was the previous season, so he planted only half of his typical pumpkin crop. Then heavy rains in May and June brought abundant water and turned the fields into a muddy mess, preventing additional plantings that many farmers might have wanted.
“When it started raining and the rain started affecting 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 harvest was a reminder of the water challenges facing agriculture in the Southwest and West as human-caused climate change worsens droughts and heat extremes. Some farmers lost 20% or more of their projected yields; others, like Mazzotti, left a piece of land undeveloped. Labor costs and inflation also reduce margins and affect farmers’ ability to profit from what they sell to garden centers and pumpkin patches.
This year’s thirsty pumpkins are a symbol of the reality that farmers who rely on irrigation must face season after season: They have to make decisions based on water quotas and the cost of electricity to pump it out of the ground, for example how many acres to plant and what crops they can rely on to survive hotter, drier summers.
Pumpkins can survive hot, dry weather to some extent, but this summer’s heat, which broke world records and caused temperatures well over 100 degrees Fahrenheit (38 degrees Celsius) in agricultural fields across the country, was just too much, Mark said Carroll, a Texas A&M consultant 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 exceed what irrigation could compensate for, but pumpkins also require cooler weather to be harvested or else they begin to break down during the shipping process, sometimes falling apart before they even arrive in stores.
According to the Illinois Farm Bureau, America’s pumpkin powerhouse Illinois had as successful a harvest as it has in the past two years. But this year, harvest season in Texas was so hot that farmers had to decide whether they wanted to risk cutting the pumpkins from the vines at the usual time or wait and miss the start of the fall pumpkin rush wanted to. Compounding the problem, irrigation costs are rising as groundwater levels continue to decline, adding thousands of dollars to pumping water each month to add to some farmers’ energy bills.
Lindsey Pyle, who grows 950 acres of pumpkins about an hour outside of Lubbock in North Texas, has also seen her energy bills rise, as have the costs of almost everything else, from supplies and chemicals to seeds and fuel. She lost about 20% of her yield. She added that it’s hard to predict the start of the growing season for pumpkins because the vines may look lush and green, but they won’t bloom or bear fruit if they don’t get enough water.
Steven Ness, who grows pinto beans and squash in central New Mexico, said rising irrigation costs due to dwindling groundwater are a common problem for farmers in the region. That can give farmers insight into what they’re growing, because if corn and pumpkins use roughly the same amount of water, they could 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’s unlikely to go away, since aquifers can take hundreds or thousands of years to replenish after overuse, and climate change in the arid West is reducing the very rain and snow needed to replenish them.
Jill Graves, who added a pumpkin patch to her blueberry farm about three years ago about an hour east of Dallas, said they had to forgo growing their own pumpkins this year and get them from a wholesaler. Graves said the pumpkins she purchased were rotting faster than in previous years, but that was better than the little they grew themselves.
Still, she believes they will try again next year. “The first two years they worked perfectly,” she said. “We had no problems.”
Mazzotti, for his part, says that if there is too little water, “you might as well give up farming” – but he still sees work as the bigger problem. Colorado farmers have long struggled with water conservation and are used to it. However, pumpkins cannot be harvested by machine like corn, so many people have to determine whether they are ripe, cut them off the vines, and prepare them for shipping.
It hires guest workers through the H-2A program, but Colorado recently passed a law requiring overtime pay for farm workers — something most states don’t require. That makes it difficult to maintain competitive prices with places where workers are paid less, plus the rising costs of irrigation and utilities, creating what Mazzotti calls a “no-win situation.”
He’ll continue growing pumpkins for a while longer, but “there’s no future after me,” he said. “My boys won’t be farming.”