Pass the pie: Canned pumpkin shortage is over

Monday, September 27, 2010 | 6:07 p.m. CDT
Cooks in New Bremen Ohio stand next to their 20 foot wide, 3,699 pound pumpkin pie. The massive pie took over 13 hours to bake in a special oven, and will be the world's largest once certified by Guinness World Records.

PORTLAND, Ore. — Pumpkin lovers can relax: A nearly yearlong shortage of the canned stuff is over.

That means an end to the hoarding, rationing and even pumpkin profiteering that have been going on since heavy rain ruined last year's harvest and caused a shortage. But the country's top producer says this year's crop is healthy, and cans are arriving in stores.

"I was a little panicked," Jamie Lothridge of Toledo, Ohio, said about the prospect of a another season low on pumpkin. The avid baker bought more than 25 cans last fall and was down to her final few this month when she called Libby's to make sure it would be back.

Nestle, which sells about 85 percent of the canned pumpkin in the U.S. under its Libby's brand, said customer inquiries have grown five-fold since last fall, when it warned it might not have enough to get through the holidays.

The problem was compounded by pumpkin's growing popularity in American kitchens. Its richness in nutrients has given it a reputation as a "super-food," and people use it year-round in bread, muffins and rolls. Some even feed it to their dogs and cats as a digestive aid.

To most, though, it means one thing.

"The color, smell and taste of pumpkin equals fall," Lothridge said.

The canned pumpkin market is worth $141 million in the U.S., but about 80 percent of those sales come in the last three months of the year, according to research group IBIS World.

Normally Nestle's fall harvest yields enough pumpkin to last until the next year. But its farm in Morton, Ill. — the source of nearly all its pumpkins — received about double the typical rainfall last year. Tractors sat mired in muck and much of the crop rotted in the fields.

Canned pumpkin was gone from the shelves as early as Thanksgiving in some places. On eBay, cans of pumpkin went for $6 or $7 apiece, several times the normal price, as supplies dwindled. Some organic competitors increased shipments to stores. Grocers fielded inquiries from disappointed shoppers. At least one grocery chain, Publix, has since rolled out its own store brand to help meet demand.

Nestle is raising its suggested retail price by 20 cents to $1.79 for a 15-ounce can. The company said the 12 percent increase is needed to cover higher costs.

Nestle said it planted extra and planted early this year. The harvest is one-third done, and the weather has cooperated so far. Forecasts are warm and dry — favorable for pumpkin picking.

That's good news for Alexa Gallagher, who says her grocers in the suburbs of Philadelphia have been out of the pumpkin since before Christmas. She had to make do with frozen butternut squash to make her family's favorite fall desserts.

"I knew it would come. The question is, how long will it be on store shelves?" Gallager said. "I am buying more than I usually do in case I have to make it last."

That's good news to Pia Rappaport of New York.

She celebrates her October birthday with pumpkin pie and loves to eat pumpkin  cake, ravioli and pudding. She even stocks her apartment with pumpkin-scented candles.

"I would be worried if there was a shortage," she said. "It's not like there is this huge market you can turn to for canned pumpkins."


Pumpkin's return

WHAT HAPPENED? Nestle gets nearly all of its pumpkin from one farm in Morton, Ill. Last year, the area got twice the amount of rainfall as normal — ruining some of the crop. Nestle, which sells under its Libby's brand, warned people in the fall about the shortage.

PUMPKIN PICTURE: A number of companies sell canned pumpkin, and there are some store brands, too. But Libby's sells about 85 percent of the canned pumpkin in the U.S.

THE OUTLOOK: Libby's says it is about one-third done with the harvest and weather is cooperating so there should be adequate supply to last until next year's harvest.

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