You've probably already heard that there's a pumpkin shortage this year. Libby's, the leader in canned pumpkin, announced its crop might be as much as half the normal amount. That’s a potential for 45 million fewer pies this season.
How did this shortage come about? In short, rain. Lots of rain. Illinois, which is home to 80% of the nation’s pumpkin production was hit with rain---10 inches more than normal from May through July. Too much rain, and the pumpkin fields wash out. There won’t be a shortage of jack-o-lanterns because pumpkins that are grown for carving grow in different regions of the country.
As Libby’s spokeswoman Roz O’Hearn explained, “Harvest, in a good year, continues through the month of October. Due to the poor yields, we completed the 2015 harvest last week.”
While it seems Mother Nature is largely to blame for the pumpkin shortage, is our seemingly insatiable demand for anything pumpkin-flavored between September and December at fault? Perhaps. But Starbucks pumpkin spice lattes don’t actually involve any of the crop itself--just spices in the spirit of pumpkin, you might say.
Not only that, but we’ve actually been in this exact predicament before. Back in 2009, news clippings read almost identically to this year’s news releases. Take a look at the Chicago Tribune coverage in 2009 and last week. O’Hearn delivers similar news about shortages for both these growing seasons. After the 2009 shortage, in 2010, Libby’s had planted more pumpkins to prepare for shortages. Will we read the same news about Libby’s recovery in 2016 papers?
How could a virtually identical pumpkin supply problem happen twice within six years? Certainly weather is always hard to predict and virtually impossible to control--which will become even more difficult in an El Niño year like this one and as climate change worsens--but perhaps there are systematic solutions.
Libby’s history illustrates how a single company can become the epicenter for one food commodity. The company was founded in 1875 by Charles and Arthur Libby. For most of the company’s history Libby’s has been the subsidiary of a larger corporation. First, Swift & Co. acquired the company in 1920 and then Nestlé bought it from Swift in 1971.
Swift & Co, as you might remember from our previous story about the meatpacking entrepreneur Gustavus Swift, processed meat. Libby's originally produced canned meat and only moved into the canned pumpkin business as it began expanding its canned food selection. After Nestlé acquired the company in 1971, parts of Libby’s were sold off bit by bit until all Nestle retained was Libby's canned pumpkins. For Nestlé, what came along with keeping the canned pumpkin business is the world's major production site of pumpkin puree: A pumpkin canning plant in Morton, Illinois.
In 1920, Libby's chose Morton as the home of its pumpkin cannery. Today, the cannery still stands and is surrounded with 5,000 acres of pumpkin fields.
With one hundred years of the same company, in the same place, controlling the same product for the entire world, one can’t help but ask if a little diversity along the way would have prevented excessive rainfall from reducing the national pumpkin supply by one third...repeatedly. To truly avoid these kinds of shortages, Libby’s could have multiple canning facilities or cultivation centers. But, what if more companies other than Libby’s had a significant share of the market? If there was someone else to lose business too, would Libby’s or other companies have incentive to cultivate in different regions or innovate solutions for exceptionally rainy season to avoid these periodic shortages.
Because there aren’t many alternative sources for pumpkin puree, it’s possible that a pumpkin shortage isn’t exactly a financial or marketing catastrophe for Libby’s. In 2009, and probably again this year, customers dash to the grocery store, hoarding Libby’s pumpkin puree because they heard the crop is short after heavy rain. Nothing makes you appreciate yummy pumpkin pie or a nostalgic brand as much as when you might not be able to get it when you want it most.
Starbucks gets a lot of eye rolls and blame when the pumpkin craze of fall hits, but is Libby’s responsible for fueling a more chronic addiction to pumpkin? Libby’s, after all, provided cooks a much easier alternative to roasting, scraping and mashing their own pumpkins into puree in the 1920s. Without the convenience Libby’s introduced, would we expect as much pumpkin pie as we do today? Is Starbucks our scapegoat for a habit that’s been a century in the making?
Do you think people will be drinking Pumpkin Spice Lattes 100 years from now?
Other links: Libby’s has a product finder, which might be especially handy this season.