The Phantom Pumpkin Shortage

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The horror. Halloween is under threat this year because of a paucity of pumpkins. There’ll be nothing to carve by October 31 if you don’t run to the store now to purchase your pumpkin. Your children will curse you. Vampires will stalk you.

Yes, a wet summer on the East Coast, topped off by the torrential rains of Hurricane Irene, made mush out of lot of farmland normally devoted to pumpkins. That has yielded an early harvest of pumpkin shortage stories—about 427,000 hits, according to Mr. Google, who counts these things. But as usual in the news enviralment, one reporter does the story, and everyone else repeats it, and Time is sometimes as guilty of it, too.

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But let’s squash the idea that we will have a pumpkin-less Halloween this year.  Apparently, the only people who can’t find pumpkins are journalists.

The shelves are gorged with gourds. In my neighborhood in far eastern Manhattan, pumpkins are popping up everywhere: in supermarkets, in specialty food shops, in fruit stands and bodegas. Across the river in New Jersey (you know, the Garden State, where they grow lots of pumpkins) the A&P is advertising “large face” pumpkins for five bucks a pop, and novelty pumpkins value priced at 2 for $4, which means, if I have my math correct, $2 apiece. It’s early in the buying season, certainly, but does this availability and pricing signal a shortage to you?

The original reports were not wrong: the pumpkin crop in New York state took it on the chin. But it does not mean that pumpkins were wiped out—supplies are down 25% to 50% depending on location. But keep in mind that pumpkins are planted in every state, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. And those states are still in business. Among the big producers, Pennsylvania got hit with the weather, but it suffered to a lesser extent than New York. Michigan, another big pumpkin planter, has plenty to offer. Don’t count Illinois because it mostly grows pumpkins for pie filling. Do count on pumpkins from west of the Mississippi, especially Texas and California. And if a short supply of  local pumpkins drives the price high enough, pumpkins will be flying in from France, where they would normally be doing duty this time of year in soupe de potiron as opposed to ritual disfigurement. Plus, with pumpkins there is a thing called substitutability, as in plastic.

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Have you ever been unable to find a pumpkin? No. Because that’s the way an economy works. In functioning markets there is no shortage of anything. There are only temporary imbalances between demand and supply. Whatever you want— pumpkins,  iPhones, gold, Yankees playoff tickets, heroin— is available. The only question is the price at which it’s available.

So let’s not frighten the children. There may be scary things associated with Halloween, but  the lack of pumpkins isn’t one of them.