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Continual rain, hotter-than-average temps challenged Colorado pumpkin farmers

Consistent rain, a light freeze and bacterial issues were some of the conditions that led to lost profits
Extreme summer weather challenges Colorado pumpkin farmers
Posted at 3:51 PM, Oct 30, 2023
and last updated 2023-10-30 17:51:55-04

ROGGEN, Colo. — Pumpkins sit on countless Colorado porches, a festive touch of fall that is symbolic of the changing seasons.

At Jerry Cooksey's home in Roggen, hundreds of thousands of pumpkins lay across a field, cloaked in a layer of snow on Sunday.

“I've lived here all my life and my great grandfather homesteaded here in 1908," Cooksey, who is a fourth generation farmer, said.

Pumpkins are one of Cooksey's favorite crops, even if they are challenging to grow and can be stressful. He began harvesting pumpkins on the last day of August in order to get them into stores by Labor Day. Cooksey Family Farms and Cooksey Produce sell their goods to grocery chains, pumpkin patches and even out of state.

"They want them about perfect when they hit the distribution center," Cooksey said. He explained that pumpkins need to be the perfect size, color and shape for the commercial buyers. "Any type of scarring or any flaw on the pumpkins, that makes them unsellable for the market we have.”

His pumpkin harvest is over, but thousands of his pumpkins still sit in the field. Cooksey said they will be fed to cattle and not sold because they were not up to snuff.

“We lost about 20% of our yield for a couple of reasons. One is bacterial leaf spot and the second would be just planted late, and they were green. We went to harvest and there was a light freeze, that caused some damage as well," Cooksey said. “There's definitely more pumpkins than I'd like to see out here for this time of year.”

According to the Associated Press, farmers in Texas and New Mexico faced similar realities with different extreme weather conditions this summer.

Cooksey said the pumpkins were planted late after 18 inches of rain fell at his farm from mid-May to mid-July. While water is always welcomed in agriculture, the amount of consistent rainfall made the field too muddy to plant the pumpkins.

"The fields were muddy, and then it would dry up and we just had a window of a day or two to get in and plant, and then it would rain again," Cooksey said. “It was nice to have the moisture but it would be better spread out over a longer period of time.”

Cooksey said the temperatures also played a role in the pumpkin growth. Overall, it was a cooler summer than it has been in recent years. However, Cooksey said there were some hotter-than-average weeks in August that stressed the plants, and led to smaller pumpkins than he had hoped.

“You've heard the saying that rain makes grain. Rain makes pumpkins, rain makes corn, it's all about water," Cooksey said. “We used to irrigate more acres, we had more water... The water quantities and water tables have dropped so we plant less acres and we plant more drought tolerant crops.”

On top of losing around 20% of his pumpkin yield, Cooksey said the price of supplies and labor have increased. In Colorado, SB21-87 requires farmers to pay H-2A workers overtime.

“I would say during the peak two weeks of our harvests, we probably paid another 15% additional just because of the overtime with our labor," Cooksey said. “In the pumpkin business, it's a regional market. So I'm competing with growers in Texas and in Oklahoma and California. And so, when other states don't have the additional labor costs, I mean, it puts us at a competitive disadvantage.”

Still, Cooksey hopes to see more snow this winter.

“Our business is totally reliant on water," Cooksey said. “That's the challenge is to grow the perfect pumpkin.”

Continual rain, hotter-than-average temps challenged CO pumpkin farmers