Smashing Pumpkins’ Conspiracy Theories

Year after year, there are threats of gourd shortages. What's up with that?

A year ago this week, I wrote here about how I wanted to make pumpkin biscotti but couldn’t find any canned pumpkin in the grocery stores near my house, thanks to widespread pumpkin shortages. That was apparently due to the weather in Illinois, where 95 percent of American-grown pumpkins are processed, largely by Libby’s, a Nestlé subsidiary that controls a whopping 85 percent of all canned pumpkin sold in the United States—a market worth $141 million. Imagine my distress, then, when an Associated Press article this year warned that Hurricane Irene had devastated pumpkin crops again. Why was Mother Nature picking on pumpkins? But then I got to thinking: Coincidence? Or something more?

I plugged “pumpkin shortage 2009” into Google, just for kicks, and turned up a story headlined “Will This Be The Year There Was No Pumpkin?” Hmmm …  pumpkin shortages three years in a row? What’s more, that 2009 story, which liberally quoted Nestlé’s Paul Bakus, referred to a serious pumpkin dearth in 2008, also caused by lousy weather. “Nestle Baking today announced that it expects a shortage of Libby’s Pumpkin on store shelves as the country enters the holiday season,” the story began coyly. Um. “Pumpkin shortage 2007”? Google didn’t fail me: A drought caused a pumpkin shortage then as well. How about 2006? “The Great Pumpkin Shortage,” TIME magazine blared that year, blaming “severe rains and the summer’s extreme heat” for spoiling the 2006 harvest in the East and much of the Midwest. (TIME liked that headline so much, it used it again on a story on its Newsfeed about this year’s failed crop.)

Heaven knows, I don’t want to be cold and cynical. And granted, the weather has been weird for quite a while now. But does it seem a little … convenient to you that every single year for the past half-dozen years, the media have gotten us all worked up about pumpkin shortages—often through articles in which Nestlé officials warn that the big orange orbs are about to be in short supply?

Since canned pumpkin, despite its myriad health benefits, is pretty much a once-a-year purchase for most of us, I could see where Libby’s might want to make hay while the sun shines (so to speak). So I called Libby’s spokeswoman Roz O’Hearn, who laughed as I counted down the years for which I’d found pumpkin-shortage reports. “No, no, no!” she insisted robustly. “There’s no conspiracy!” It was the Eastern crop that got walloped by Irene, she explained; in Illinois, pumpkin-harvesting has already begun, and “things look great.” She did mention that year-round pumpkin usage is up, and pushed ideas for using canned pumpkin—”High in fiber and antioxidants!”—that included blending it into tomato sauce (“You’ll never even taste it!”) and layering it into parfaits with Greek yogurt and granola. (More recipes here!)

I must admit, I still have my suspicions. Journalism does that to you. But O’Hearn’s holding the line. “It’s a crop,” she says. “It’s agricultural. You’re at the mercy of the weather.”