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Katrina scares state's pumpkin market away
MISSISSIPPI STATE -- Hurricane Katrina robbed Mississippi of pumpkins on about 25 percent of the state's acreage, but the greatest losses may be markets in the coastal and New Orleans areas.
David Nagel, horticulturist with Mississippi State University's Extension Service, said the entire crop below Interstate 20 -- just under 100 acres -- was lost.
“The biggest blow from the hurricanes was not crop damage; it was the loss of market,” Nagel said.
Some of the state's 400 acres of pumpkins lacked adequate moisture during bloom, but those drought conditions also helped decrease disease pressure.
“The major constraints to producing Halloween pumpkins in Mississippi are diseases, both foliar fungal diseases and viral diseases,” Nagel said. “If the weather is dry, powdery mildew attacks the very large leaves; if it is wet, then downy mildew attacks. The viral diseases are spread by insects, which normally are more numerous in wet years.”
Ross Burney is a student at Northwest Community College and a pumpkin grower in Yalobusha County. Each year since his junior year in high school, he has grown a few acres of pumpkins to earn extra money. This year, he decided to increase his acreage to 35.
“I've learned a lot every year about growing and marketing pumpkins. This year, I was planning to send one big shipment to a broker in New Orleans. Even after Katrina, we thought we might be able to send some down, but Rita ended that,” Burney said.
The hurricanes closed the market to the south, and Burney has been working to sell his pumpkins in the Memphis area. Despite being closer to Memphis, the result has been increased transportation costs. Instead of one large shipment, he has been forced to make many more smaller shipments.
“I've managed to sell all 35,000 pumpkins. I think if we'd gotten some timely rains the yields would have been higher, maybe 1,500 pumpkins per acre instead of 1,000,” he said.
A few counties away in Tippah County, conditions were less favorable.
“Our main producer grows pumpkins for school field trips and had to import pumpkins from other areas to accommodate visitors to his farm,” said Tim Needham, Tippah County Extension director. “Dry conditions at bloom time in the middle of August caused a crop failure. We did get rain from Katrina, but it came too late.”