Illinois: The Great Pumpkin State
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 2017 as second-ranked 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% 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”