Illinois: The Great Pumpkin State

By  8 Comments
Illinois Pumpkins

John Ackerman grows ornamental pumpkins in Morton, Ill.

An Illinois farm likely grew both your Halloween pumpkin (known in the industry as ornamental) and the prime ingredient in your Thanksgiving pie (called processing pumpkins).

When it comes to pumpkin production, Illinois smashes the competition. Prairie State farmers grow more ornamental and canning-type pumpkins than any other state. In fact, Illinois produced more than twice as many pumpkins in 2012 as second-ranked to California.

“I doubt if the average person in Illinois realizes the impact of pumpkin growing in this state,” says John Ackerman, owner of Ackerman Farms near Morton. He, his wife, Eve, and their children grow both ornamental and processing pumpkins.

The state’s farms harvested a record 16,200 acres of pumpkins in 2012, according to the Illinois Agricultural Statistics Service (IASS). Most of those were processing pumpkins, the best type for canning and cooking. More than 90 percent of the nation’s canning pumpkins grow in Illinois, says Mohammad Babadoost, a plant pathologist and professor at the University of Illinois.

Illinois earns the top rank for several reasons. Pumpkins grow well in its climate and in certain soil types. And in the 1920s, a pumpkin processing industry was established in Illinois, Babadoost says. Decades of experience and dedicated research help Illinois maintain its edge in pumpkin production.

Two pumpkin processing facilities exist in Illinois today – Nestle Libby’s in Morton and Seneca Foods in Princeville, both located near Peoria.

Illinois Pumpkins

Rows of pumpkins are harvested before being taken to the Nestle/Libby’s plant in Morton, Ill. Morton is known as the Pumpkin Capital of the World.

Meanwhile, ornamental pumpkins offer entertainment value for Illinoisans. People enjoy pumpkins, farms and the autumn agritourism destinations surrounding them.

“We have limited recreation opportunities,” Babadoost says. “We don’t have oceans. We don’t have mountains.”

But Illinois has tons of pumpkins. In fact, farms throughout the state grew more than 278,000 tons last year, according to IASS. That translates to millions of pumpkins.

Illinois Pumpkins

The Difference Between Pumpkins You Eat and Pumpkins You Carve

Jack-o’-lantern pumpkins can be eaten. Processing pumpkins can be carved. But for best results, stick to the pumpkin’s intended purpose.

Ornamental pumpkins possess decorative appeal. They exhibit bright orange, smooth flesh with heavy handles. A few varieties offer uniquely colored flesh or warty texture.

Illinois Pumpkins

Some Illinois farms sell decorative pumpkins wholesale, including to major retailers such as Walmart, Babadoost says. Many ornamental pumpkin growers, like Ackerman, invite customers to their farms to pick pumpkins in person. More than 2,000 schoolchildren and an unrecorded number of other visitors come to Ackerman Farms each fall.

Processing pumpkins are bred and selected to be canned. They have pale flesh, meatier insides and a more palatable flavor. The production of these pumpkins has increased with the growing public demand for pumpkin-flavored products, Babadoost says.

SEE MORE: Pumped for Pumpkin Recipes

Pumpkins grown for consumption pack a nutritional punch of antioxidants, fiber and vitamin A. As a result, home cooks use pumpkin to flavor soups, pasta dishes, cookies, breads, pancakes and more. Even some dog foods contain the healthy power of pumpkin.

Illinois Pumpkin Harvest

How Pumpkins Grow

Pumpkins take about 120 days to grow from planting to harvest.

Nestle Libby’s and Seneca Foods each contract with farmers within their region to grow processing pumpkins. Farmers plant seeds in April and May for a harvest that starts in late July and lasts through November, Babadoost says. Farmers plant ornamental pumpkins in May and June for harvest closer to the beginning of fall.

The sprawling plants grow and cover fields with vines up to 30 feet long. The vines contain flowers that bees pollinate to become pumpkins. Disease presents the biggest challenge during the growing season, Babadoost says. Warm and moist conditions increase those concerns.

Farmers use machines to harvest processing pumpkins. One farm machine moves the pumpkins into rows, while another elevates them into trucks. Then the crop travels to the facility to be washed, chopped, processed and canned.

In contrast, farmers harvest ornamental pumpkins using good old-fashioned manpower. These decorative gourds must be gathered by hand to avoid bruising and damage. Ackerman and about five employees pick up thousands of pumpkins on his 30-acre farm. One year, he estimated selling more than 30,000 pumpkins off the farm.

“We love what we do,” Ackerman says. “I don’t think you could do this if you didn’t enjoy it.”

8 Comments

  1. Tom Carter

    September 15, 2014 at 10:00 am

    Just out of curiosity, does the increasing number of products that include pumpkin (or at least the name) suggest that US pumpkin harvest/supply is beginning to push demand?

    • Jessy Yancey

      September 17, 2014 at 1:49 pm

      Hi Tom,

      Great question! I’m not sure if demand is causing the increase of pumpkin products, or vice versa. I did find an article stating that U.S. pumpkin-flavored sales jumped 14 percent to about $308 million in 2013, according to Nielsen. The extra demand helped push pumpkin prices up 11 percent last year, according to a USDA report from March. Hope this helps!

      Jessy Yancey
      editor, ilfbpartners.com

  2. Liz Korn

    October 11, 2014 at 9:10 pm

    Hi,

    I use a food mill to process apples. I quarter the apples, boil them, & run them through the food mill. The pulp is pushed through a screen by a screw press, and the peel & seeds are removed & discarded through the process. Slick & easy!

    Why won’t this process work with pumpkins? Every processing recipe I have found calls for peeling the pumpkins prior to boiling & running through a food mill. OR….. They advise to bake or microwave the pumpkin, remove the peel, & then process through a food mill.

    Can you offer any insight?

  3. Bill Moody

    September 4, 2015 at 2:42 pm

    Dear Mr. Produce Person: What’s the deal with high pumpkin seed prices? Aren’t we awash in pumpkins here in the Midwest (quad cities)? I mean $7.00 for a bag of roasted and salted pumpkin seeds seems like a lot. Wouldn’t more be sold if they were like $3 or $4 dollars a bag? I would eat bunches if they were. I love ’em. Sincerely, Bill.

  4. Linda Reckling

    October 13, 2016 at 11:45 am

    Hello. I am a first grade teacher at Breese District 12 School in Breese, Illinois. My classroom is decorated in a farm theme because we are in a rural area. As I get to know my students better, I have discovered that they really don’t know a lot about farming although they live in a farming community. We do have a lady that comes in 30 minutes once a month to discuss Ag Literacy, but this is not near enough. I am wondering if you have any coloring books, books to read, pencils, stress balls, etc. that you would be willing to donate to help me teach the students more about farming and agriculture in general. Thanks in advance.

    • Jessy Yancey

      November 30, 2016 at 3:09 pm

      Hi Linda,

      Sorry for the delay in response to your comment! I would recommend contacting the folks at Illinois Ag in the Classroom at http://www.agintheclassroom.org. You can find a lot of teacher resources there. Hope that helps!

      Jessy Yancey
      editor, Partners magazine

  5. Al Estrada

    November 28, 2016 at 6:28 pm

    We are looking for a producer of pumpkin seed oil. Would you be able to point me into the right direction? Looking to buy 1000 lbs at a time.

Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

By submitting this form, you accept the Mollom privacy policy.