Who doesn’t enjoy a big slice of pumpkin pie, or how about carving and decorating those pumpkins every October to celebrate Halloween? And where did those pumpkins come from? There’s a good chance they were grown right here in Illinois, which leads the nation by a wide margin in pumpkin production. In fact, nearly 40 percent of the pumpkins produced in the United States come from Illinois.
Illinois produced over 650 million pounds of pumpkins in 2021, more than the next five top states combined. Indiana was the second-largest pumpkin producing state with 181 million pounds. Illinois is home to well-draining soil and hot, dry weather, and those are ripe conditions for pumpkin production.
Illinois is home to two large pumpkin processing plants. The biggest is Nestle Libby in Morton, the town dubbed as the Pumpkin Capital of the World. This plant produces over 85 percent of the canned pumpkins sold in the U.S. Also, Seneca Foods has a processing plant in Princeville. The top pumpkin producing counties are Tazewell, Kankakee, Mason, Logan, Will, Marshall, Kane, Pike, Carroll and Woodford.
Illinois produces plenty of the jack-o-lantern pumpkins, but it also is known for the smaller, sweet variety of pumpkins known as sugar pumpkins. These are traditionally used for pies. Nearly 18,000 acres of pumpkins were planted in Illinois in 2021, with 97 percent of those going to processing plants.
Jack-o-lantern pumpkins can be eaten, but they are also ornamental pumpkins that possess decorative appeal. They exhibit bright orange, smooth flesh with heavy handles. Some Illinois farms sell decorative pumpkins wholesale to major retailers, and many growers invite customers to their farms to pick in-person.
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 continues to increase with the growing public demand for pumpkin-flavored products. That demand is projected to continue growing at over a six percent rate per year for the next five years.
The world’s largest pumpkin was grown in Italy in 2021, and it weighed in at 2,702 pounds. The largest recorded pumpkin in Illinois was grown by Gene McMullen in 2015, and it weighed in at 2,145.5 pounds. Last year’s winner in the 2022 contest in Illinois was Joe Adkins, and his pumpkin weighed 1,760 pounds.
Pumpkins take about 120 days to grow from planting to harvest. Libby’s and Seneca Foods contract with farmers in their regions to grow processing pumpkins. Typically, farmers plant seeds for processing pumpkins in April and May for a harvest that starts in late July and lasts through November. Farmers typically plant ornamental pumpkins in May and June for a harvest closer to the beginning of fall. The sprawling plants grow and cover fields with vines up to 30 feet long.