Free Enterprise Staff  | September 16, 2015

Orange Is the New Black: Pumpkin Spice Lattes & the U.S. Pumpkin Economy


It’s September, which means you can expect crisp weather, shorter days, and a familiar refrain while you’re waiting in line at Starbucks: “I’ll have a grande pumpkin spice latte, please.” It’s difficult to escape pumpkin fever. But what does that mean for the pumpkin economy?

After all, all those pumpkin-flavored beverages and products are made from pumpkin (at least in theory). That actually wasn’t true of the pumpkin spice latte—or PSL, as its abbreviation-loving fans lovingly refer to it—though 2015 marks a turning point in its ongoing evolution: When the most popular seasonal beverage in Starbucks’s history returns September 8th, it will be made with real pumpkin for the first time ever.

The growing popularity of products like PSLs, pumpkin beer, and pumpkin soups has meant more business for U.S. pumpkin farmers. These men and women, it turns out, largely reside in one of a half-dozen states that are overwhelmingly responsible for domestic pumpkin production.

Deron Berkhof/Bloomberg News

Deron Berkhof/Bloomberg News

Illinois is far and away the top pumpkin-growing state in the U.S.: Prairie State farmers produced just shy of 550 million pounds of the vegetable in 2013, according to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (U.S.D.A.). Following top-ranked Illinois were California, Ohio, Michigan, New York, and Pennsylvania. All together, these six states generated more than 1.1 billion pounds of pumpkin in 2013—approximately 70% of the total U.S. supply that year.

U.S. pumpkin producers have seen demand rise precipitously over the past 15 years. Though Starbucks can’t take all the credit for its growing popularity—its pumpkin spice latte debuted 11 years ago—it’s unlikely that the two aren’t connected. Regardless, this boom has been a boon for farmers: U.S. pumpkin sales roughly doubled between 2001 and 2014, increasing from $75 million to $145 million.

It doesn’t appear that consumers will lose their taste for pumpkin anytime soon. According to Nielsen, sales of pumpkin-flavored items rose to $308 million in 2012, with the number of offerings on store shelves similarly growing by double digits. Pie filling is the most popular of these products, accounting for 42% of all sales; coffee, cream, and baking mixes followed. Yet pumpkin-flavored beer was close behind, with sales up 3% in 2013 to $22 million.

Though many of us now enjoy pumpkins exclusively at the kitchen table—pumpkins were once recommended as a remedy for snakebites and as a treatment for removing freckles, according to the University of Illinois—they are an important fall tradition across the U.S., regardless of whether you’re eating, drinking, or carving them.