By STEVE BINDER
MORTON, Ill. — While heavy rains at the wrong times played havoc with some corn planting early this growing season, Mother Nature timed rainfall perfectly for Illinois pumpkin growers.
Little rain during late May played into planting the cucurbits, and then timely rainfall in June and July gave the growing melons needed water to plump up. The only downfall was a drier-than-usual August, which slowed growth a bit but didn’t take too much of a bite from the current harvest.
“We’re looking pretty good this year,” said John Ackerman of Ackerman Farms in north-central Illinois, home to most of the contract growers who supply the nearby Libby’s pumpkin processing facilities with most of the processing pumpkins it uses to can the fruit.
“Even the ornamentals have done well this year, even though we were a bit drier than usual toward the end,” Ackerman noted.
Illinois continues to harvest more pumpkins than any other state, with an estimated harvest this year of about 670 million pounds, with most going to Libby’s for packing. The Nestle-owned company produces about 90 percent of the canned pumpkin consumed in the United States, and about 80 percent of what is consumed worldwide.
For farmers who contract with Libby’s, and who tend to about 8,000 acres of pumpkins, the industry is big business – bringing in approximately $35 million in revenue for growers alone last year, according to the Illinois Department of Agriculture.
Pumpkin harvesting will continue through the first hard freeze, said Jim Ackerman, agriculture manager for Libby’s canning facility, noting this year’s crop is much healthier than the famous “wet” harvest from 2015. Two years ago, thanks to too much water early on, crop size was cut in about half.
“We’re certainly better than we were two years ago, and even last year,” he said. “We got started (with harvest) in July this year, so it made for a good, early start.”
For Mitch Negangard, who operates a 35-acre pumpkin patch near the central Illinois town of Sydney, a drier August meant he’s not seeing super large pumpkins this year – nonetheless, his patch is loaded.
“We didn't get the rain to make our bigger ones grow as big as we like them to be,” Negangard explained. “They usually get upwards of 100 pounds, but this year since we didn't get that August rain, they've been kind of smaller.
“Last year compared to this year, we were really wet in August and September, which caused some our pumpkins to rot out more because they were sitting in wet dirt.”