Fungus attacking pumpkins in eastern third of U.S.

Associated Press

TOLEDO, Ohio (October 24, 2001 06:37 a.m. EDT) - A fungus that rises from the ground is attacking fields of pumpkins in the eastern third of the country and covering acres of Halloween gourds with white spots.

Some pumpkin farmers in Ohio have lost as much as half their crop.

"Why it would show up here all of a sudden I haven't a clue," said Mac Riedel, a vegetable pathologist at Ohio State University.

The fungus, known as Michrodocium blight, has long been found in Europe but didn't appear in the United States until 13 years ago, when it was found in Tennessee. It has since spread into big pumpkin-growing states in the Midwest and along the East Coast.

The fungus seems to attack and spread when the weather is cool and wet. It first targets the pumpkin's stems and leaves, making the stems brittle, and then covers the gourd with a scabby surface of white and tan spots.

"Once the cosmetic value is destroyed, it's a total loss," Riedel said.

Illinois lost half of its crop a year ago, but the impact has been much less dramatic this season. While the fungus first was found in the South, it has crept into isolated fields as far away as Massachusetts in the past year.

It hasn't been a good year for pumpkins in general. Dry weather in New York and Michigan shrunk the size of pumpkins in those states and has led to higher prices.

While losses have mounted for some farmers, pumpkin prices at supermarkets and farmers' markets have remained steady in many states. That's because there is generally an oversupply of pumpkins, growers say.

At least 10 different diseases can turn a bright orange pumpkin patch into a field of decaying black and green gourds. Most can be treated with sprays and fungicides.

It's not that simple with Michrodocium blight.

"We know very little about how to control it," said Mohammad Badoost, a University of Illinois researcher.

The loss of pumpkins last year in Illinois, the nation's largest pumpkin-growing state, forced some growers to buy pumpkins from other farmers to meet demand.

Some farmers have been able to fight the disease with regular use of a fungicide, said Mary Ann Hansen, manager of the plant disease clinic at Virginia Tech University.

What's most puzzling is that the disease can attack one field while leaving another patch just a few miles away untouched. At least half of the pumpkins were destroyed in one field at Fulton's Farms in Troy, Ohio, while another field nearby lost less than 20 percent.

"It got pretty bad before we knew what was happening," said Bill Fulton, owner of the farm. "I'd never seen it before."

Some customers were told that their entire orders won't be filled.

"We'll sell 60 percent of what we should have," Fulton said.