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Canned pumpkin may be in short supply this holiday season

By now, you may have heard of the Great Pumpkin Shortage of '09.

Supermarkets everywhere sticking little apology notes where canned pumpkin used to be. Thanksgiving dessert plans ruined.

Relax, pumpkin purveyors say. We're not in crisis mode yet. But it may be around the corner.

Libby's spokeswoman Roz O'Hearn said that what you see in stores now is likely all there will be through the holidays. Libby's supplies nearly all of the canned pumpkin products sold in the United States.

"We know at this point the (2009) harvest is going to be smaller than anticipated," O'Hearn said, noting Libby's will announce the bad news in a statement today.

"Does that mean it's going to be increasingly difficult to find in stores? Yep, that's probably likely."

Once pumpkin surpluses run out this year, O'Hearn said, there won't be any more until the 2010 harvest, which usually happens no earlier than August.

Locally, stores and bakeries say they should be okay on pumpkin, at least for Thanksgiving.

Publix Supermarkets have restocked since coming up empty earlier this fall, spokeswoman Shannon Patten said, and "should have enough to get us through the holidays." Same goes for Sweetbay.

Dunkin' Donuts and Starbucks, which peddle pumpkin-flavored treats around this time of year, report they'll be just fine.

"We plan for this every year, and well in advance," said Dunkin' Donuts spokesman Andrew Mastrangelo. "The shortage won't affect us."

Even Tampa-based Mike's Pies, which sells about 2,500 pumpkin pies this time of year, got an early tip and bought as much canned pumpkin as it could stock in September.

"Pumpkin pies for everyone, thanks to Mike's Pies," said Courtney Anderson, the company's director of operations. "Fortunately, I think we may have dodged a bullet here."

So was there really a pumpkin shortage? Or was it all hype, generated to jack up the price?

If you've looked for canned pumpkin in stores recently, you know it has been scarce.

"We had people coming in and going 'AAAAAAHHH' and grabbing cans of pumpkin when they saw them," said Patten, of Publix.

Libby's, the division of food giant Nestlé that controls more than 80 percent of the canned pumpkin market, did report a shortage in early fall.

The company has a 5,000-acre pumpkin farm in Morton, Ill. It suffered from an unusually rainy summer, which all but ruined the 2008 harvest that was canned and supplied to stores in 2009.

Libby's has been furiously picking and processing its 2009 harvest to get canned pumpkin and pumpkin pie filling to stores, hoping to avert Thanksgiving Day disasters. But heavy rains and muddy fields have put a virtual stop to harvesting.

"Most likely, we're going to see our inventory dwindling soon," O'Hearn said.

Sweetbay spokeswoman Nicole LeBeau said if you see cans in stores and know you'll need them later, grab them now.

"If pumpkin pie is the hot new thing on the cover of Martha Stewart's Living, we could be in trouble," LeBeau said.

Doug Gergela, an agricultural researcher for University of Florida who farms experimental pumpkins in a small town outside of Gainesville, has been watching the pumpkin shortage with curiosity.

The Long Island native remembers a similar "Great Pumpkin Disaster of '96," when unusually heavy rains soaked the ground, rotting some of the northern crop by Columbus Day.

"That was pretty rough, too," Gergela said.

In Florida, growing pumpkins — especially the kind you eat — is especially challenging. We rely on pumpkins grown up north or in the Midwest, which are then shipped to supermarkets here.

At the UF research farm, Gergela and other farmers have spent years tinkering with different varieties and hybrids of pumpkin. Only a few, such as the light-colored tropical Calabaza pumpkin, taste good.

Gergela said his wife tried to buy canned pumpkin at Walmart near Gainesville recently and an employee said the store was out due to the shortage.

"They gave her a rain check for a can of Libby's," he said.

Emily Nipps can be reached at nipps@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8452.

Canned pumpkin may be in short supply this holiday season 11/16/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, November 17, 2009 1:43pm]
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