At the Farm Gate Iliinois, The Nation's Pumpkin Powerhouse
Like farming in general this year, our kids’ plan to grow pumpkins worked better in previous years than this one. From spring’s relentless rains to the summer’s hot and droughty spell, our home-grown pumpkin luck ran out by August like the creek water in the cattle pasture.
But life moves on and pumpkin season has arrived, nonetheless. The gourd’s appearance at local orchards, box stores and voluntarily on our compost pile embrace my soul like walking into the aroma of a home-cooked meal. I love fall, harvest, crisp air, wiener roasts, comfort foods, corn shocks and pumpkins.
Unbeknownst to most, Illinois handily ranks No. 1 in production of pumpkins for carving, eating and decorating for the fall holidays. Farmers here harvest three to five times more acres of pumpkins than any of the other top pumpkin states, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Our state’s pumpkin plethora started almost a century ago with the establishment of pumpkin processors in the Illinois River area of Illinois, home to a favorable pumpkin-growing climate and soil type.
In fact, more than 90 percent of the nation’s canned pumpkin grows in Illinois, a university expert tells me. Odds are, an Illinois farm grew the primary ingredient in that centerpiece pie at Thanksgiving. The same goes for the pumpkin coffee cake and pumpkin bars that our daughter and resident baker mixes up every fall.
Twice now a farmer has planted processing pumpkins across the road from our house, growing the meatier type of pumpkin selected for cooking and canning. With one of the state’s two pumpkin processing plants 13 miles away, our kids annually witness acres of pumpkins from seed to sprawling vine to harvest. Around the time our family harvests corn and soybeans, the pumpkin harvest begins with tractors rowing and then mechanically elevating the gourds into trucks.
This experience allows our kids to see another type of large-scale harvest. It also helps them learn the differences between processing and ornamental pumpkins, something like the purpose for beef cattle and dairy cattle. Processing pumpkins eat better than they carve, possess a thick interior, and their pale-orange flesh makes them less showy on the front porch.
Ornamental pumpkins traditionally symbolize fall, the ideal carvers and front porch décor with a bright-orange flesh and heavy handles.
We plant the latter, love baking with the former and enjoy most things recognized as artificial pumpkin, too. I stock enough pumpkin-scented hand soaps every fall that they sometimes make a summer debut in our bathrooms. Summer on the farm seemed chaotic and short, but I welcome the comfort that pumpkins bring to our porch, baked goods and frame of mind.
About the author: Joanie Stiers, a wife and mother of two farm kids, writes from west-central Illinois, where her family grows corn, soybeans and hay and raises beef cattle.