By TIM ALEXANDER
MORTON, Ill. — In a subpar year for most Corn Belt farmers, a Morton producer found a “shining star” in his ornamental pumpkin fields.
John Ackerman and his wife, Eve, own and operate Ackerman Farms, a central Illinois agritourism destination that offers, among other items, pumpkins, gourds and squash of all varieties, shapes, sizes, textures and flavors.
“Most cucurbitaceae, which include pumpkin and squash, do very well in dry conditions. They’re very water-efficient and set roots right along the nodes of the vine itself. They get a lot less diseases and less funguses in dry heat,” Ackerman said on Oct. 25, while he prepared for what he expected to be his final pumpkin pick of the season.
“I refer to my pumpkins as the shining star of this (crop) year. Our expectations were pretty low for corn and beans. The corn did a little better than we expected and the beans were below average, but not terrible. The wheat was good, but our apples were a complete disaster. It was a challenging year to be sure, but a year with a lot of blessings, too.”
If Morton – home to the Nestle/Libby’s processing plant, which cans 90 percent of the nation’s pumpkin filling – is the world’s capital for pumpkins, then Ackerman could be its unofficial Pumpkin King.
Though he didn’t sign a contract to produce field (or processing) pumpkins for Libby’s in 2012, his ornamental fields spanned 30 acres and featured 160 varieties imported from every continent, save Antarctica. Counting “mini” pumpkins, Ackerman estimates his total 2012 production at around 30,000.
“We’re constantly searching for the newest and just-discovered varieties through commercial catalogs, the Internet and other growers,” said Ackerman, affably known as “Farmer John” by the thousands of area schoolchildren who visit his farm in busloads to frolic among the varieties of pumpkins, enjoy a hayrack ride, visit with farm animals or take a chance in the farm’s new corn maze.
“We try a few new (varieties) every year, but not every one turns out to be saleable. It may be the wrong size or have the wrong appearance.”
Pumpkin production is one of the most labor-intensive duties in farming. With each pumpkin physically handled an average of three times from field to point of sale, the Ackermans have lugged and toted the equivalent of 90,000 gourds this year alone.
Once planted, pumpkins are especially susceptible to rot, blight and other maladies. Entire fields can be lost to floods, freezes or other naturally occurring calamities. Though they can withstand extreme heat, pumpkins still must have access to timely precipitation in order to flourish.
“My early-planted pumpkins in mid-May came out fantastic and weathered the drought way better than I expected,” Ackerman said. “It was the latest planting that I had the most trouble with.
“It was pushing July (when planted) and we waited for rain that never happened. I tried desperately to water them by running tankers over the rows, with limited success. We finally got some rain in August, but some did not mature in time. But they didn’t make up a big percentage of our field, either.”
Ackerman Farms, located on Illinois Route 150 two miles east of Morton in Tazewell County, also offers seasonal mums, straw bales and cornstalks and boasts a country gift shop with craft items and farm-themed bric-a-brac. It also features a menagerie of cats, kittens, roosters, ducks, goats and other kid-friendly critters both roaming free and fenced in.
But the farm’s livelihood counts on pumpkins, most of which are sold during October for use as jack-o-lanterns; however, Ackerman Farms doesn’t close immediately after Halloween. Any pumpkins that remain unsold are usually gobbled up “by our cooks,” said Ackerman, referring to customers who purchase pumpkins for cooking purposes.
“A lot of our (ornamentals) have been used as cooking pumpkins for centuries,” said Ackerman. “Many of them are heirlooms handed down from various parts of the world.”
Despite a topsy-turvy growing year for row and specialty crops, Ackerman reiterated that he couldn’t help but feel blessed, in part because of the outstanding performance of his ornamentals.
“But I wouldn’t mind trying growing in a normal year just once – whatever normal is,” Ackerman said, laughing.