A summer of record heat and the worst drought in half a century wiped out some Illinois cornfields. Suburban lawns were so brown and dry, it hurt to walk barefoot. The dry, hot weather messed with gardeners, who got sunburned by the same unrelenting rays that created the sun scald keeping their tomatoes from turning red.
But now that fall is back, Illinois is back to doing what we do better than anyone: growing pumpkins. Illinois not only is the nation's top-producing pumpkin state, but we also grow more pumpkins than the other 49 states combined.
This year, our state is home to 3,589 acres of the fresh pumpkins consumers buy at farms and farmer markets, and 12,185 acres of processed pumpkins that end up in cans, soups, pies and such, says Doug Bailey, chief program specialist with the farm service agency in Springfield under the U.S. Department of Agriculture. That's about the same as it is in years when it isn't so hot and dry.
"Pumpkins have been our best crop. Everything is great," gushes Sue Murdock, manager of Goebbert's Farm & Garden Center in South Barrington, which kicked off its fall festival this weekend. "The apple story is not as great."
The drought that devastated the apple crop was easier on the pumpkins growing in Goebbert's 75-acre patch in Hampshire.
"They like dry feet," Bailey says of pumpkins.
"Pumpkins are a little better adapted to hot, dry weather," explains Bill Shoemaker, who recently retired after 30 years as a senior research specialist with the University of Illinois' horticulture research center in St. Charles. In a hot and wet summer a decade ago, and even the mild but rainy summer of 2007, pumpkin plants become very susceptible to a fungus that not only rots the pumpkins but also can live off the decaying leftovers and resurface the following year, or the year after that.
"(In our wettest years), we had growers with significant acreage who harvested only 5 percent of their crop," Shoemaker says. "This season, with the dry weather and the heat, they did pretty darn well."
The pumpkins planted June 1 on the Goebbert's farm in Hampshire needed a little irrigation to get started but didn't mind the sun, Murdock says.
"They have a huge leaf on them, so they grow in the shade," she notes. "When you look at a pumpkin field in August, all you see is green."
And that translates into the saving of some green, with pumpkin prices the same as last year, Murdock says. Last year, Goebbert's had to buy a few pumpkins from New Mexico to meet the demand from customers.
"We're not planning to bring in any this year," Murdock says, adding that, if the weather cooperates on weekends, the farm in South Barrington should draw 225,000 visitors this season. "When we don't have to buy pumpkins, that's a good year."
Illinois owes our pumpkins prowess to the town of Morton, just east of Peoria. Proclaimed as "The Pumpkin Capital of the World," Morton is home to the Libby's pumpkin processing plant owned by Nestlé Food Co. That plant cans more than 85 percent of the world's pumpkins. A whopping 90 percent of the pumpkins grown in the United States come from within a 90-mile radius of Peoria, according to the University of Illinois.
A fruit in the vine family of cucurbits, pumpkins have been around for centuries. According to the University of Illinois Extension office, the word pumpkin comes from "pepon," the Greek word for large melon. The French changed that to "pompon," which the English changed to "pumpion" and the American colonists changed to "pumpkin," and the Americans participating in the wacky competition to fling pumpkins by catapult, trebuchet, air cannon, slingshot or centrifugal devices changed that to "punkin," as in the "Punkin Chunkin" competition every Thanksgiving on the Science Channel.
Now that the pumpkins are moving from the fields to the farm stands and markets, we should be rolling in pumpkins through Halloween. Unless, of course, we get some scary weather with temperatures plunging below freezing this fall.
"If they get frozen," Murdock says, "the skin will fall off."