The Great Pumpkin Crisis of 2009: Bad for Libby's, good for organic growers

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By the time you read this, disaster may have already struck. You're either looking forward to a Thanksgiving meal with the warm, reassuring taste of pumpkin pie -- or staring down the barrel of a substitute sweet potato pie while trying to pretend that everything is hunky-dory. Either way, any warnings I can offer will surely be too late.

As the history books will one day note, the Great Pumpkin Crisis of 2009 began back in August, when heavy rains in Morton, Illinois, left the fields boggy and wet, delaying the harvest. Morton, also known as "Pumpkin Capital of the United States," soon found itself with field after field of moldy, rotten orange gourds that were useless for cooking and canning. This was hardly an isolated problem: Morton supplies Nestle with its pumpkins and Nestle (NSRGY), through its Libby's subsidiary, supplies the country with 85% of its canned pumpkin. Thus, as goes Morton, so goes Thanksgiving.
Earlier this month, Nestle finally gave in to the inevitable, announcing that it was afraid there wasn't going to be enough pumpkin for Thanksgiving.

Part of the problem is that this was the second bad pumpkin year in a row: poor 2008 harvests depleted back stocks of the precious orange ingredient, leaving Nestle unprepared for its current disaster. Given how common pumpkin is, it seems strange that the orange squash should prove such a gourdian knot, but the fact that so much of it comes from such a small geographic area means that a bad planting season can quickly translate into a dire problem. In 2008, Illinois produced almost 500 million pounds of pumpkin, putting it at the top of the pumpkin producing list. The next three states -- California, New York, and Pennsylvania -- each produced somewhere in the range of 100 million pounds.

In fact, pumpkins aren't the only Thanksgiving treat that is vulnerable to this sort of blight. Wisconsin's 400 million pounds of cranberries represent more than twice the harvest of Massachusetts, the second biggest producer, and the next state in line produces a mere 54 million pounds. Similarly, North Carolina is the biggest producer of sweet potatoes, while Arkansas is tops when one is talking turkey. Most cherries come from Michigan, and most green beans hail from Wisconsin.

These sorts of regional distinctions are particularly interesting when it comes to pumpkins. While Morton is America's acknowledged pumpkin master, Corvallis, Oregon leads the pack in organic pumpkin production. Moreover, while Morton's pumpkin patch was mired in muck, Corvallis' was experiencing a bumper crop. And so, as the smell of rotting pumpkin wafts across Illinois' fields and America wonders where its Christmas pumpkin bread will get its main ingredient, it might be time for time for the Beaver State to step to the pumpkin plate.

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