Community Events

July flooding squashes VT pumpkin crops, provides challenges for annual Winooski jack-o’-lantern display

The July 10 floods that decimated many Vermont farms’ crops had squashed Winooski’s pumpkin prospects.

Pumpkins from Dutton Berry Farm in Newfane await carving outside of the Winooski Senior Center on Barlow St. Image courtesy of Downtown Winooski Instagram.

By Adelaide Conaway

Earlier this month, the organizers of the jack-o’-lantern carving competition and display that engulfs Winooski’s Rotary Park for Halloween experienced a horrible fright: The farms that usually supply the pumpkins for the event wouldn’t have enough this year.

The July 10 floods that decimated many Vermont farms’ crops had squashed Winooski’s pumpkin prospects.

The Rotary Park display of 1,000 carved jack-o’-lanterns — crafted by knife-wielding community members — is a cornerstone of the annual Halloween in Winooski event, organized by the city and Downtown Winooski, a nonprofit entity that arranges and promotes city events. The Halloween festivities take place on Saturday, Oct. 28, this year and include spooky decorations, a children’s scavenger hunt, trick-or-treating at city businesses, a DJ, local vendors and live music.

Whitcomb’s Land of Pumpkins and Corn Maze in Williston and Sam Mazza’s Farm Market in Colchester both were “pretty completely wiped out” of pumpkins, said Ray Coffey, Winooski’s community services director. “So, we’ve had to completely pivot.”

No one from the two farms agreed to requests for an interview, but an unidentified person from Whitcomb’s responded to an email query. “We lost about 75% of our crop in the flooding earlier this year,” the person wrote. The farm has pumpkins available for the general public but not enough extra to supply the numbers required for Halloween in Winooski. “We wish we could have been able to supply them this year and hope to be able to next year,” the email read.

City officials spent a week searching for farms that avoided flood damage and yielded abundant crops. Organizers also measured logistical and financial challenges to transport the pumpkins. Finally, they landed on Dutton Berry Farm, 122 miles south of the city, in Newfane. On Monday, nearly 1,000 Vermont-grown pumpkins rolled into Winooski, loaded in 18 bins on a box truck driven by the owners’ son, Joseph Dutton.

“Isn’t it funny that a pumpkin Halloween event would be stressful?” said Melissa Corbin, Downtown Winooski’s executive director, with a chuckle. “But honestly, it’s nothing compared to what the farmers went through.”

The major July floods and heavy rains of summer hit the state’s pumpkin crop particularly hard, explained Heather Darby, a University of Vermont Extension crop and soil specialist who works closely with Vermont farmers. “Pumpkins themselves are not like corn, where they are kind of up high and could withstand a little bit of flooding,” Darby said. “They are very succulent, leafy, low to the ground, a vining crop. … So if they went underwater, they just didn’t recover.”

Farms that experienced little flooding still withstood an abnormal amount of summer rain, Darby said, resulting in “low quality fruit, diseases. Their crops were rotting very quickly even if they made it to maturity,” she said. “Even crops that survived just led to very, very low production. It’s more or less statewide: pumpkins, squash, all those things are in shortage. It’s very unfortunate.”

Wendy Dutton, an owner of Dutton Berry Farm, said her pumpkin fields withstood the floods, leaving the crops ready for carving. “We’re happy we can help out, and we’re sorry for the farms that lost so much,” she said. “We know what it’s like to be in the farm business and the loss from things out of our control.”

As of Tuesday, the city’s pumpkin-carving events commenced at the Winooski Senior Center and will continue through Friday, in advance of the Saturday display.

The carving is starting later than usual. In the past, the community carvers had “two really intense carving days” a week before the event, Coffey said. This year, the four sessions leading up to the display will allow more business groups, sports teams and afterschool programs that haven’t participated before to join the pumpkin preparations, he added. “It’s definitely a shift, but I’m hoping it will bring in some new people to the process.”

The carving activity and events usually depend on $2,000 to $3,000 from fundraising, which offsets about $1,000 for the cost of pumpkins, Coffey said. Whitcomb has charged the city about $1 per jack-o’-lantern. The obstacles this year, though, bumped the pumpkin cost closer to $3,500, Coffey said, and the organizers said additional donations would help cover the difference.

“We’ve really been able to do it on a shoestring and make it a pretty big spectacle for minimal investment,” Coffey said. “Normally it takes about 1,000 pumpkins and 200 volunteers to make it all happen.”

The Halloween pumpkin display originated about 20 years ago with Season’s Greetings, a Winooski volunteer group led by Sally Tipson. Coffey, who has lived in Winooski for 15 years and worked for the city for 11, said the earliest celebrations involved about 100 pumpkins outside Winooski City Hall.

Now, digging up 1,000 pumpkins every year – even without flooding – is a weighty task.

“I’m happy that people up there get to use our pumpkins and people are enjoying them,” said Joseph Dutton, after driving this year’s load nearly the length of the state to Winooski. “It’s nice that people are gonna see our name and enjoy what we worked hard to grow.”

And on Saturday, Winooskians will get to see them glow.

Adelaide Conaway reported this story on assignment from the Winooski News. The Community News Service is a program in which University of Vermont students work with professional editors to provide content for local news outlets at no cost.

Categories: Community Events, Weather