January 18, 2022

National reports of pumpkin shortage not true in Peoria area

PEORIA, Ill. (AP) — National reports of fungus and wet weather threatening U.S. pumpkin crops had pumpkin lovers spooked ahead of Halloween and Thanksgiving. But pumpkin farmers and experts said there is nothing to fear locally.

For Peoria-area pumpkin farmers and manufacturers, the frights of fungus and excessive moisture have largely avoided the area, the Journal Star reported.

John Ackerman, a pumpkin farmer of Ackerman farms in Morton, is growing mostly jack-o’-lantern pumpkins this season and said his farm has been lucky enough to avoid the phytophthora fungus, which has been known to ravage pumpkin fields.

“What I’ve been hearing from fellow farmers in the area is they’ve been having decent to average yields in the canning pumpkins and for the ornamental ones I am having just a terrific year, so we are very lucky, very blessed,” Ackerman said.

Mohammad Babadoost, an expert on vegetable and fruit diseases at the University of Illinois, said there is no pumpkin shortage in the United States, despite what reports have said, and any worries of a phytophthora fungus were taken care of months ago and they “didn’t let the pathogen get out of control.”

“In the past five years or longer we haven’t had a really serious problem with phytophthora,” Babadoost said. “That does not mean we did not have phytophthora infection, but not huge losses.”

Nestle, which owns Libby’s canned pumpkins in Morton, said its pumpkins have “grown as expected this season.”

“This year and every year, the team in Morton, Illinois, continually monitors the soil health, climate, and crop to ensure we’re delivering the authentic taste, texture and color that have made Libby’s a family favorite across generations,” Nestle said in a statement.

The Morton facility processes the lion’s share of the canned pumpkin sold in the United States that’s later used for cooking and baking.

Many of the pumpkins processed there are grown in and around the Peoria area.

More so than any kind of disease, what local farmers have seen is a typical concern about pumpkin plants being picky about how much moisture they get.

“It’s a low-lying plant with big leaves, it stays wet and it kind of likes dry conditions,” Ackerman said. “I was kind of concerned through the summer because it was so wet, but things turned out to be really, really good.”

The Peoria area has been a bit wetter than what Ackerman and the pumpkins would prefer, but he said things have dried up quickly enough that everything will be fine.

“They can retain a lot of moisture, they’re incredibly efficient about retaining moisture, they even drop roots along the vines,” Ackerman said. “But if you really want a great pumpkin yield, those are usually in a dry year.”

Wet weather in July sparked a bit of concern with Babadoost about a potential phytophthora breakout because the pathogen, which lives in soil, “wakes up” in wet conditions to spread its spores.

In August, some phytophthora was noticed in commercial pumpkin fields, Babadoost said. But fungicides and other techniques were used to avoid any kind of fungal pandemic like Illinois saw in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

Babadoost said phytophthora was so bad in some places back then, there was worry the pumpkin industry in Illinois could disappear.

Weather has in fact given Ackerman and other pumpkin farmers quite the gift so far this growing season by not providing any kind of frost, something the pumpkins really don’t like.

Any kind of hard-freeze will damage pumpkins and if farmers see one coming they will “pick like mad men” Ackerman said. But this year there has been no reason to panic.

John Zaiser, a pumpkin farmer at Zaiser Farms in Deer Creek, did highlight a different problem he said plagues local growers: larger retailers selling pumpkins at prices farmers can’t compete with.