Pumpkins Broaden Viability of Illinois Growers

Oct 26, 2018  | 6 min  | Ep4410

The wet summer drowned more than just corn and soybeans. Heavy rains washed away the Maryland pumpkin crop.

Other states are left to fill the orders for what becomes trick-or-treat beacons and fall desserts. Among them is Illinois where pumpkins are big business.

Josh Buettner has our Cover Story.

Since returning to central Illinois during the farm crisis of the 1980s, John Ackerman has raised various commodities, specialty crops and animals to keep his multi-generational operation afloat.  But embracing his hometown’s unique flavor is what’s truly entwined his family name into local roots.

John Ackerman/Ackerman Family Farms – Morton, Illinois: "We've got 32 acres this year of hand-picked ornamental pumpkins, gourds and squash.  And we raise over 160 different varieties too…We have red pumpkins.  We have white pumpkins.  We actually have blue pumpkins here.  This one is a Red Warty Thing.  That is honestly the name they gave this one…”

Despite persistent regional rains threatening some grain and oilseed viability this year, Ackerman says the Morton, Illinois area has seen a bumper crop of pumpkins over the past 5 or 6 years.

John Ackerman/Ackerman Family Farms – Morton, Illinois: "We actually grow thousands of these every year.  These come in all different shapes and colors.  People decorate with these all the time.”

And so once again, iconic Ackerman Family Farms is serving up a vast array of seasonal gourds and squash, with a dash of farm life.

John Ackerman/Ackerman Family Farms – Morton, Illinois: "When we give field trips, we try to let them interact with the animals.  We want them to feel the feathers on a chicken, the fur on a bunny, the fiber on an alpaca, the wool on a sheep, the hair on a goat…We've learned that not only are we selling a product – we’re selling produce out here - but we're selling an experience too.” 

Commercial pumpkin patches are a classic set-piece of harvest-time Americana.  And though Morton, Illinois has earned the nickname “Pumpkin Capital of the World”, it isn’t the traditional jack-o’-lantern style that’s globetrotting…

John Ackerman/Ackerman Family Farms – Morton, Illinois: “Gotta give them a lot of credit.  When they took that wonderful old Dickinson pie pumpkin, that was grown in Kentucky 100 years ago, they developed that seed and they improved on that pumpkin.  And they did so by paying attention to taste and texture.” 

Ackerman began his career in pumpkinry by contracting with a local processor, Libby’s, which cans pumpkin pie filler.  Their Morton factory has been in operation since the late 1920s.  And officials with multi-national parent corporation Nestle say 85 percent of worldwide canned pumpkin supply comes from within a 50 mile radius of the town – going from vine to vessel in less than 6 hours.  Shelf supply surges annually during the traditional harvest-to-holidays baking season.

Jim Ackerman/Agriculture Manager – Nestle USA: “It is a different view to see acres and acres of pumpkins rolled into rows ready to be harvested.” 

John Ackerman’s cousin, Jim, is agriculture manager for Nestle USA in Morton. He says roughly 20,000 vicinity acres are in production during any given year - adding another layer of beneficial crop rotation outside corn and soybeans.

Jim Ackerman/Agriculture Manager – Nestle USA: “This is a little sweeter and a little meatier.  Our puree is nicer.  Jack-o’-lantern variety is for appearances.  We’re looking for a brix factor or a sugar factor in these also that isn’t in ornamentals.”

Despite shortfalls on crop protection elements and university level studies into pumpkins, Jim Ackerman says there is no shortage of local contractors willing to work into the fold when approached.

Jim Ackerman/Agriculture Manager – Nestle USA: “Nestle’s… Libby’s…has been around for a lot of years and hopefully we’ve treated the growers well.  They keep coming back.”

According to USDA, in 2017, domestic pumpkin yields averaged over 22-thousand pounds per acre. The Land of Lincoln led the pack, trouncing second place California by over 472 million pounds in total production.  Locals say that’s pretty good.

Jeff Griffin/President and CEO – Peoria Area Chamber of Commerce: “It IS pretty good...”

Jeff Griffin heads up the Peoria Area Chamber of Commerce.  Morton falls within the nearby city’s metro area, and Griffin is quick to point out the economic benefits the specialty crop brings to the local economy.

Jeff Griffin/President and CEO – Peoria Area Chamber of Commerce: “The land is right for it here.  The pumpkin industry in Illinois is a $12 million annual industry.  Large employer.  Employers such as Nestle-Libby’s and Seneca Farms in addition to all the smaller farms that contribute to the pumpkin production and tourism and the fun stuff that goes along with harvesting pumpkins.”

For John Ackerman, the diversity pumpkins provide are a welcome respite from the volatility of more common row crops.  And whether it’s working with processors to fill stores shelves or raising ornamentals on his own, he’s always excited by the spirit fall harvest ushers into the area.

John Ackerman/Ackerman Family Farms – Morton, Illinois: “We have the best demographics here.  We get grandparents and families and cooks and gardeners and animal lovers… And I have come to appreciate that, in a retail business, we have the best kind of customers there are.”

For Market to Market, I’m Josh Buettner. @mtmjosh

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