TOWN OF FULTON — As with so many other crops in this year's growing season of unprecedented extremes, the heat and lack of rain has had a varied impact on the local pumpkin crop.
Nobody's predicting the return of the Great Pumpkin this year, but local growers from different parts of Rock County report that their pumpkin crops are mediocre to good and are ripening on time—and in some cases, early.
In a mercurial and dismal year for crops, one in which farmers have been chopping their failed corn for silage, even a middling pumpkin crop is a bright spot and a pleasant surprise, small market growers in Rock County say.
The secret, growers say, was when—and in some cases, where—the big orange orbs were planted.
Local farm market owner Bryan Meyer said his pumpkin crop has been one of the year's success stories.
Meyer is perhaps best known for the giant, smiling fiberglass jack-o-lantern that at times has topped the silo at his family farm market along Interstate 90/39.
Thanks to a storm that blew the huge pumpkin down, the silo now stands bare, but his nine-acre pumpkin patch is far from it.
It's Meyer's best year for pumpkins in five years, he told The Gazette in an interview.
Meyer said he planted his pumpkins in early and mid-June—a few weeks later than other growers. That's normal for him, and it paid off this year.
By the time his pumpkins were pollinating and moving into their major growth cycle, the brutally hot, 100-degree days of July had passed. And rain came along just at the right time, too.
He compared the pumpkins to other crops that went in later this year, in time to catch a few measurable rains and cooling weather in August and earlier this month.
"Just like some fall crops are doing well compared to some earlier-season crops, generally speaking, it's the same with pumpkins. Ones planted later did better than earlier ones," Meyer said.
And thanks to dry weather with little dew overnight, Meyer's plants stayed dry all day and night, which kept mildew, rot and other blights from damaging the pumpkins.
Meyer said his pumpkins are ripening up right now, and they should still be in good shape for the main consumer pumpkin crunch in late September through October.
But the same conditions that helped Meyer's pumpkins hurt rural Beloit grower George Atkinson.
Atkinson said his 10-acre pumpkin patch along Madison Road has good quality pumpkins. They're decently sized—18 pounds or so on average.
And they'll be coming ripe in time for his purposes—to supply other pumpkin-sellers.
But Atkinson said yields are down this year
"We're probably dealing with about a half a crop compared to normal," Atkinson said.
The problem? Timing. You can't predict a heat wave like the one Rock County endured in July, Atkinson said.
Atkinson said the heat, not the drought, stung his pumpkin plants at a critical time—during pollination. The plants' main pollinator—bees—were languishing at that time, he said.
"You've got to have bees around for the pollination, and you've got to have bees working. See, they don't work when it's real hot," Atkinson said.
Lack of pollination limited how many pumpkins grew on the vines, Atkinson said, but a couple of good rains came just in time for his plants' growth cycle. That helped, he said.
There are worse pumpkin woes elsewhere, Atkinson said.
He said parts of the county with light soils saw pumpkin crops that literally dried up in the weeks of drought in June and August.
"You get in over by Brodhead where there's sandy ground, a lot of those guys are virtually failures. They just ran out of moisture. There are some guys there aren't even going to try and harvest anything. They're so small, and the quality, it's so bad," Atkinson said.
Dry, hot weather is particularly hard on growers with sandy soil, he said.
"The advantage of a sandy ground on a normal year, raising pumpkins on sandy ground, the bottoms are better. It's a prettier pumpkin. But too little rain, and it goes the other way. They're done for."