Pumpkin a Big Slice of Illinois Agriculture

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Pumpkinfest

To our kids’ delight, a field of processing pumpkins grew across our gravel road this year. And to mine, they witnessed commercial pumpkin production and what few people realize: Illinois smashes the competition when it comes to growing pumpkins. Illinois farms commercially grow more pumpkin-pie-worthy pumpkins and ornamental carving pumpkins than any other state, a university expert tells me. In the recent five-year average, Illinois annually produced three times as many pumpkins as No. 2 California. Our state commercially grew an average 537.6 million pounds of pumpkin per year on 18,140 acres, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service.

While our farm does not commercially grow pumpkins, our family’s farmland sits at the western edge of pumpkin country, where thousands of acres of canning-type pumpkins grow for the state’s two major processors: Nestle Libby’s in Morton and Seneca Foods in Princeville. Illinois’ heritage of pumpkin processing, now about 100 years old, prompts our state to produce more than 90 percent of the nation’s processing pumpkins. Yes, pretty much all of them, which means the prime ingredient in nearly every pumpkin pie, too.

By October, the vines across the road began to wither away and reveal an expanse of pale orange. Processing pumpkins dawn a pale color, as opposed to the vibrant orange of an ornamental jack-o-lantern. They also have chunky oblong shapes and meaty innards. The kids eagerly anticipated the harvest, when tractors and implements rolled the pumpkins into rows throughout the field. Afterward, a harvesting machine elevated and tossed the pumpkins into a container that followed alongside. Then, a truck full of pumpkins traveled to the processing facility where workers washed, chopped, processed and canned them. One year, we saw harvest continue through the night, when workers hauled in portable lights bright enough for a football game. The sounds of thumping pumpkins set the night’s white noise.

During the summer, the sprawling vines grow as much as 30 feet and spill beyond their bounds and even into the ditches. From there, we pluck one or more for decoration after harvest, as the machines often miss the fruits that lie out of bounds. For a truly from-scratch experience, I once baked with a processing pumpkin that we liberated from the ditch. Romanticizing aside, stick with the can of concentrated pumpkin, which tastes better and spares the time to cut, gut and cook a whole pumpkin.

In celebration of fall and our need to use an abundance of eggs from the hen house, I recently baked a farm friend’s recipe for pumpkin bars. It warmed the hearts and tummies in our household on that late harvest night. The flavor also generated conversation about a favorite pumpkin-pecan layer pie, a Thanksgiving demand from some men in my family. At 560 calories per slice, the dessert fits right in with holiday food indulgences while honoring the Illinois pumpkin harvest. Happy Thanksgiving!

Pumpkin-Pecan Layer Pie

(Makes 2 pies)
Note: Hy-Vee Seasons Magazine deserves credit for this recipe; I only adjusted it a bit, such as opting for homemade graham cracker crust over the pre-made variety.

2 graham cracker crusts
1, 15 oz. can pumpkin
1, 12 oz. can evaporated milk
1 cup granulated sugar
1 tsp. pumpkin pie spice
3 eggs
1 box of butter pecan cake mix
3/4 cup chopped pecans
2 sticks butter, melted separately
Whipped topping, for serving

Directions: First, make your graham cracker crusts (or use store-bought). Stir together pumpkin, evaporated milk, sugar, spice and eggs in a large mixing bowl. Pour half the pumpkin mixture into each pie crust. Sprinkle half the cake mix over each pie. Then, sprinkle half the pecans on each pie. Drizzle one stick of melted butter on each pie. (Try to cover all the cake mix.) Cover edges of pie with foil to keep from overbrowning during baking. Bake pies at 350 degrees for 40 minutes, or until knife inserted comes out clean. Allow to cool. Serve with whipped topping. Refrigerate leftover pie.

Homemade Graham Cracker Crust
(Makes 2 crusts)
Note: Recipe from allrecipes.com.
3 cups graham cracker crumbs
2/3 cup granulated sugar
3/4 cup butter, melted

Directions: Combine and press into two pie plates. Bake at 375 degrees for 7 minutes.

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