By Theopolis Waters
CHICAGO (Reuters) - U.S. farmers are cheering a bumper crop of pumpkins this year, due to dry weather, and celebrating a year-round boost in demand aided by new avenues of growth in such products as flavored coffee and pet food.
Experts said this year's pumpkin crop will match or top 2016's bountiful harvest thanks to favorable growing conditions in six states noted for producing half of the pumpkins in the nation. Farmers last year produced 1.6 billion pounds (726 million kg) valued at $208 million, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
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Sales of the fruit for decorations like jack-o'-lanterns or pumpkin pie filling and yogurt remain strong, but it is the new and different uses such as liquid coffee, cereal and dog food where demand is surging.
Sales of pumpkin-flavored items for the year ending July 1 have surged 45 percent since 2013 - the earliest year data is available - to a record $414 million, according to market research firm Nielsen. That total is up 6 percent from a year ago.
"Any way you can consume it, it's a good thing," said Jim Ackerman, agriculture manager for Libby's, which supplies close to 80 percent of U.S canned pumpkin.
Libby's is a unit of Nestle SA, which is also the parent company of Nestle Purina Petcare, the world's No. 2 pet food manufacturer.
"Pets love pumpkin too," said Purina nutritionist Janet Dempsey, while citing its antioxidant-like benefits and dietary fiber content. Purina uses real pumpkin to accent its cat and dog food recipes year round.
Sales of dog food with pumpkin flavors skyrocketed to $41.9 million for the 52-week period ending July 29, compared with $925,288 during a similar period in 2013.
Not all nontraditional sectors are hot for pumpkin, however.
The liquor market for pumpkins, including pumpkin-flavored craft beers, has cooled in recent years as fickle millennials switch to other flavors. Pumpkin-themed craft beer sales fell to $83.6 million in 2016 from $115 million in 2014, according to Nielsen.
The bumper U.S. pumpkin crop this year was aided in some regions by dry weather, which hurt corn and soybean crops but aided the large orange-yellow fruit.
In Illinois, which usually accounts for 90 percent of the United States’ canned or processed pumpkins, farmers last year picked 676 million pounds (307 million kg) of pumpkins, the U.S. Department of Agriculture said. That was the second-highest total ever and was worth a record $52 million.
"The drier, the better because it results in less disease and yield loss," University of Illinois plant pathologist Mohammad Babadoost said. "With all this strange weather, we may end up having one of the best pumpkin crops in years."
Another perk for growers from the large crop was that any unharvested pumpkins will help protect the soil for incoming, or rotation, crops such as corn and soybeans, experts said.
Mark Berg, an Illinois farmer who grows pumpkins for Libby's, was hurt by isolated rain in his area but said the industry overall would benefit from the dry weather.
"That will help offset a lower price because you're going to have at least the same or slightly better income from the pumpkins," he said.
(Reporting by Theopolis Waters in Chicago; Editing by Ben Klayman and Matthew Lewis)