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California Drought's Newest Target: The Great Pumpkins

Prices have already gone up. Next year could be worse.
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The list of crops affected by California's ongoing drought is growing. This time it's pumpkins.

While this year's crop is expected to be normal—a pumpkin from California weighing 2,058 pounds took first prize and set a new tournament record this week—the lack of water is forcing many pumpkin growers to face the possibility of plowing over their pumpkin patches sooner than later.

Next to Illinois, California is the second-largest pumpkin producer in the country.

"The impact is very severe on us and if we don't get rain this winter we won't be able to grow anything," said Wayne Martin, a farmer in Fresno, California, who grows pumpkins on his 60 acres of land.

"It's very bad here with the little water we have," he said.

Martin explained that because he's had to pump more water out of the ground than usual to produce this year's crop, the cost of doing business has gone up.

"The financial impact has really hurt," he said. "We've had to pay more for the water and that means consumers will pay more."

Martin said he expects he will have to sell his pumpkins for 15 percent more than last year. The national average is currently around 50 cents per pound, or $5 for a basketball-sized pumpkin.

Doug Perry runs Perry Farms in Fremont, California, and grows pumpkins on 91 acres. He's had to go to a drip irrigation system to help cultivate his crop. He's actually growing smaller pumpkins because of water cutbacks.

Perry said he's fortunate to have access to water that other farmers might not have in drier parts of the state. But like Martin, he worries about next year and beyond.

"This winter is key for a lot of us," Perry said.

California's pumpkin crop

Most pumpkins are grown on smaller farms. And they don't go far from the fields. Despite their tough exterior, pumpkins bruise easily and are rarely shipped across state lines. Most are sold locally.

In fact—Halloween jack-o'-lanterns aside—the bulk of the pumpkin crop is used for canned pie filling.

But it is time consuming to grow pumpkins. The season lasts from April to October and planting requires feeding, worries that the crop can grow too fast before harvest and constant spraying for insects.

"The irrigation system helped keep the soil moist but it led to a lot more bugs," Perry said.

"When you sprinkle water normally you get less bugs but then you get more weeds," he added. "It's a constant battle."

Other crops feeling the heat from the California drought include, hay, wheat, olives and corn. Livestock deaths have increased due to lack of water in the state.

Even California's rice production has been hit. Nearly 25 percent of the state's $5 billion rice crop will be lost this year due to lack of water, say experts.

Dairy production is also down. California, which is the top milk producer in the U.S., has lost 1 percent to 2 percent of its dairy industry because of the drought in the last three years, according to recent statistics.

Any chance of rain for this winter seems bleak. Earlier this year some forecasts predicted rainfall for California. But those projections have been toned down.

The weather condition known as El Nino that brings rains to the state was expected to be strong. However, even if El Nino does occur, it will be weak with little rainfall predicted.

That's leaving farmers like Martin, who's grown pumpkins for 30 years, feeling helpless.

"All we can do is pray for rain," he said. "What else is there to do."