COLUMBUS, Ohio - Microdochium blight, a little-known fungal disease that cosmetically destroys pumpkins, is rearing its ugly head again this year throughout parts of Ohio.
Spurred on by warm weather and wet conditions, the disease is showing up in areas that have been hit by recent rain showers, adding insult to injury to a crop that has already been scalded by the summer's high temperatures.
"The heat really hurt fruit set because the foliage just dropped, leaving the pumpkins exposed to the sun, which just scalded the crop. We got a lot of losses from that," said Mac Riedel, an Ohio State University vegetable pathologist. "And now the rains are just priming the crop for disease development. So we are getting hit at both ends of the season."
Riedel speculates that between sun damage and diseases, statewide pumpkin yields may drop 25 percent to 30 percent, making pumpkin picking even more of a daunting task for consumers than what they faced last year.
"There were certain areas last year that lost 50-60 percent of the pumpkin crop because of diseases," said Riedel. "But I think this year is worse because the damage to the crop is more of a statewide problem. There was just no way around those high temperatures."
Riedel said consumers might see a jump in pumpkin prices in response to a smaller crop. "Prices might be up a little bit at the retail level which may drive consumers to buy only one pumpkin instead of the usual four or five. I've already seen places that are selling pumpkins for twice what they were selling them for last year."
Harvest is nearly complete, beginning in August and likely to continue into the second week of October. But one problem Riedel sees once harvest is wrapped up is crop storage.
"Sun damage affected the quality of the pumpkins, which will make it more difficult to store the pumpkins and keep them for food," said Riedel. "The high temperatures basically just cooked the pumpkins, killing the cells and subjecting the fruit to all kinds of diseases."
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Ohio is ranked 5th in the nation in pumpkin production. Approximately 5,000 to 6,000 acres of pumpkins are grown in Ohio, generating roughly $25 million a year in revenue in local sales and exports to southern states.