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Despite a ‘challenging’ drought, pumpkin farmers see a solid crop for the Halloween season

A collection of pumpkins on display at Ackerman Family Farms in Morton.
Ackerman Family Farms
A collection of pumpkins on display at Ackerman Family Farms in Morton.

Two well-known Morton pumpkin farmers say this year’s drought posed some challenges, but their fields ultimately yielded a solid crop.

The operators of Ackerman Family Farms and the Roth Pumpkin Patch both say consumer demand is approaching its typical October peak, and they expect to stay busy through the end of the month in the Tazewell County village that dubbed itself the Pumpkin Capital of the World.

John Ackerman of Ackerman Family Farms admits the shortage of rainfall made it tougher on pumpkin farmers at the start.

“This year was challenging,” Ackerman said. “It was difficult to get the seeds to germinate this spring, but we finally caught some rains and it really saved the crop. We came out of it really well; we’ve got a good crop this year.”

Does that mean “a good crop” in terms of quality, or quantity?

“Both, actually. We’re sitting really well with plenty of pumpkins, and because it was so dry, there’s very little rot; the quality is extremely good,” Ackerman said. “Pumpkins, they like it to be dry within reason. It was a little unreasonably dry early, but we came out of it very well.”

Nic Roth of the Roth Pumpkin Patch says their pumpkin production also came out better than he first anticipated.

“Surprisingly, we have a fair amount of pumpkins in our field. The drought definitely had an impact that there’s maybe not as many out in the field. Usually, we kind of just see the ground littered with pumpkins,” Roth said.

“But as dry as it was, we had trouble getting the seeds themselves or the plants themselves to emerge. With it being so dry, they sat in the ground, I think, for over a week before we finally had pumpkin plants emerging. Then after that, it seemed like we just couldn’t get the rain. They hung on; the plants themselves I think are thinner as a whole.”

Roth says he saw a range in growth among different types of pumpkins.

“Some of the varieties maybe didn’t get quite as big as they normally would,” he said. “So, there’s some specialty varieties they were just a little bit smaller. Our jack-o-lantern varieties, they surprisingly did fairly well; we still have some nice big jack-o-lanterns that we’re picking that are nice carving pumpkins. But it’s the specialty types that take the biggest hit.”

Ackerman describes consumer demand for pumpkins as “decent” this season, but he says it has shifted a bit over the past few years.

“I think there’s some people worried about the economy, somewhat,” Ackerman said. “It’s getting a little bit different because right after the (COVID-19) pandemic, people came out in droves because they wanted something to do (when) they finally had a chance to get out.

“I think that kind of intense need to get out to the farm may have passed a bit. But we have been blessed with an amazing amount of people out here this year. So, I guess I’ve been very happy with the shoppers that have come out here.”

Last month, the Illinois Department of Agriculture confirmed the arrival of the spotted lanternfly to the state. The invasive insect, native to eastern Asia, is often drawn to pumpkin patches. The nuisance pest secretes a sticky substance that doesn’t kill plants but can weaken them.

Roth says they do guard against insects endangering their crop, but he didn’t notice any of the spotted lanternfly.

“I don’t know that I’d be able to recognize that particular pest,” he said. “We do spray our pumpkins a couple of times to keep the pests out. We put fungicide on and so forth as well. I think in that respect, the pumpkin plants were healthy plants. It was just the lack of water that hurt them the most.”

Ackerman says he also did not detect the spotted lanternfly at his farm.

“I’ve seen it a lot in my trade magazines, but we haven’t had here so much,” he said. “We do have the squash bugs and cucumber beetles, but not enough to justify spraying. So it’s really not a problem for us this year.”

Ackerman says he’s had good crowds coming to their farm attractions this season, and he’s optimistic that will continue.

“Well, it’s weather related, of course,” he said. “We had a ton of people do our corn maze this year, (and) they come out to see the animals. So if the weather holds well and it feels fall-like, I think we’ll get a lot of people this year yet.”

Roth says they have plenty of options to choose from when buying pumpkins.

“If you’re looking for a carving pumpkin, we have pumpkins that are more round in shape. It just kind of depends on what you like to carve,” Roth said. “But then we also have pumpkins that are a taller pumpkin; that kind of gives you a nice big surface area that you can really make a neat carving out of. So, we’ve got both varieties here and if you just want to get a nice pumpkin that will stand up, you can make a nice, fall decoration out of it.”

Ackerman has a few pieces of advice for pumpkin shoppers.

“I’d say shop local. Of course, I have a vested interest in that,” Ackerman said. “But I think shopping local keeps your local small farmer going and you’d be part of the community that way.

“When you’re selecting a pumpkin, always just look for a good, healthy one; ask for help if you need it. There’s so many varieties out there, and some of the choices are actually great ones to cook and eat.”

And how can a shopper tell a pumpkin is healthy?

“Honestly, just be looking for any bad spots, any soft spots,” he said. “Most of the pumpkins are in good shape. But doesn’t hurt to give them a good look-over before you put yours in a shopping cart.”

Both farmers say they’ll close for the season immediately after Halloween. Ackerman says he wishes that wasn’t the case.

“Makes me a little sad, because I always thought that Thanksgiving should be just as important as Halloween,” he said. “But the truth is, it’s just not that way.”

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