Pumpkin harvest suffers as farmers struggle with poor weather, failed crops

Local growers say there could be fewer pumpkins to go around this fall after record-breaking spring rainfall flooded fields and ruined crops.

Record-breaking spring rainfall leads to worst harvest in years

Mark Saunders poses with some of the pumpkins that Saunders Farm had to have shipped in after heavy spring rains destroyed his crops. (Trevor Pritchard/CBC)

Just like every autumn, Saunders Farm in rural south Ottawa is stacked with bright orange pumpkins.

But thanks to this spring's heavy rainfall, there's one big difference: almost all of this year's crop had to be shipped in from somewhere else.

Farms across the Ottawa region are struggling after poor weather conditions produced a lacklustre harvest or no crops at all. 

"We've never had the kind of rain that we had. This was above and beyond anything we've had before," said Mark Saunders, the farm's co-owner.

"[Pumpkins] need oxygen to continue to grow and the water just cut off the oxygen to the roots and the stems. And so they just died."

Record rainfall devastated fields

More than 175 millimetres of rain fell on Ottawa in May, breaking a 31-year-old record. June saw higher-than-normal levels of precipitation as well, leading to waterlogged fields across the region.

Saunders said after the farm's first pumpkin crop failed in May, they tried to plant again in June — something they'd never had to do before.

"We thought, OK, this is enough rain. We're not going to have any more rain. And sure enough, it rained again, as it did every two days this summer, it seemed."  

When the second crop also failed, Saunders said he was forced to buy about 10,000 pumpkins from a farm near Cornwall, Ont., that had emerged from the wet spring relatively unscathed.

"This person had a great crop. And that's kind of the way the weather tends to happen these days," he said. "There's these microclimates around here, and you can be great in one area — and [then] go 50 miles or 60 kilometres away and have a totally different experience."

Strong crop at Gatineau farm

That certainly holds true at Courges et Cie, a pumpkin and squash farm in rural northeast Gatineau which managed to bring in a healthy crop — despite some initial worries.

"We weren't sure we were going to have a season this fall," farm co-owner Nancy Pinard told Radio-Canada on Saturday.

"But everything went well. So now we have a lot of squash, a lot of pumpkins. The only problem now is it is too hot for our clients to pick their own pumpkins and squash. We need to tell them to be careful [and] drink a lot of water."

Nancy Pinard, co-owner of Courges et Cie in Gatineau, says this year's pumpkin harvest has turned out all right. (Radio-Canada)

On the other hand, Graham Green said his pumpkin crop is definitely less than half what it would be in a normal season.

"I've been doing this for 26 years, and it's the least amount that we've ever seen," said Green, who owns Abby Hill Farms near Richmond.

Green said there could be fewer pumpkins for sale at farmers markets and roadside stalls, and those that are available may be more expensive than usual.

'A really hard year'

He also said because crop insurance is prohibitively expensive for many fruit-and-vegetable growers like himself, it'll be a struggle to pay all the bills.

"We're just going to have to somehow get through it, and hope that some of these fields that were planted later will surprise us with a little more than we think is in them," he said.

"There's definitely some challenges to get through to Halloween this year."

There's definitely some challenges to get through to Halloween this year.- Graham Green, farmer

As for Saunders, he said he also expects to take a loss from his failed pumpkin crop.

But he's also hoping that the diversity of his crops — and the fact Saunders Farm offers family entertainment options like corn mazes and hayrides — will help soften that blow.

"If we were just a grower, this would be a really hard year," Saunders said.

"But for us, you know, now if we get some sunshine in the fall [then] we can make it up with visits to the farm."