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One state produces 41 percent of America's pumpkins, data shows

NBC News logo NBC News 10/25/2021 Elliott Ramos and Jiachuan Wu and Nigel Chiwaya
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CHICAGO — Gourds grow big on the East Coast and smaller out west, but when it comes to growing the most in the country, Illinois is the pumpkin king.

The Midwestern state accounts for the largest share of American pumpkins, producing 41 percent of the nation’s crop last year, according to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Pumpkins are grown in almost every state, but the weather conditions in Illinois are part of the reason the state produces so many, said Mac Condill, owner of the Great Pumpkin Patch in Moultrie County, Illinois.

“Pumpkins like hot, dry weather, and typically in the Midwest, we will get that,” Condill said. “We also have very well-drained soil. And so that helps pumpkins — they don't like wet feet.”

Across the state, Illinois farmers planted more than 20 square miles of pumpkins, according to the 2017 agricultural census, the most recent one available.

And while the state produces plenty of jack-o-lantern pumpkins, it’s especially known for producing the smaller, sweet variety known as sugar pumpkins, traditionally used for pies. According to data from the USDA’s Farm Service Agency, Illinois planted almost 8 square miles of sugar pumpkins this year, far more than the one-half square mile planted by runner-up, Texas.

The 2017 USDA census shows that just five counties in Illinois — Mason, Tazewell, Stark, Peoria and Woodford counties — make up 60 percent of the state’s pumpkin acreage.

There have been a few reports of a pumpkin shortage and higher prices around the country, but Raghela Scavuzzo, an associate director at the Illinois Farm Bureau, said such reports are overstated.

“There's not going to be a grand pumpkin shortage, but what we are facing is an OK year,” she said. “We don't have an overabundance, but we do have enough pumpkins to get you by. You don't need to panic buy.”

Scavuzzo said overall labor shortages have caused supply-chain issues on shipping containers and cans, as well as manufacturing delays, and that could drive prices higher.

“What we're seeing is a delay, but you're not seeing that here in Illinois.”

Morton, Illinois, a village in Tazewell County about 150 miles southwest of Chicago, takes special pride in pumpkin production. Leigh Ann Brown, executive director of the Morton Chamber of Commerce, said the village is home to a Libby’s plant, a food brand owned by Nestlé that sells canned fruits and vegetables, among other products. Brown said the plant produces 85 percent of the canned pumpkin sold in the United States.

"We are technically known as the pumpkin capital of the world," Brown said, adding that former Illinois Gov. Jim Thompson gave Morton that title in 1978. Tazewell County planted nearly 5.2 square miles of pumpkins this year, according to FSA data, and Brown said that much of the canned pumpkins are obtained from within an hour of the plant.

Hilary Long, vice president of sales and marketing for Frey Farms — one of the largest pumpkin producers in the state — said the internet is driving pumpkin trends.

“Social media has changed consumer habits in all aspects of everything,” she said.

Pumpkins sit in a box at Frey Farms in Keenes, Ill. (Courtesy Frey Farms) © Courtesy Frey Farms Pumpkins sit in a box at Frey Farms in Keenes, Ill. (Courtesy Frey Farms)

Colorful, unique pumpkins are popular this year, Long said, as well as white pumpkins. And growers have followed the trend, diversifying their crops and producing decorative gourds alongside ones destined for the oven.

More than 1.5 square miles of white “ghost” pumpkins were planted this year, almost five times the amount planted in 2009, according to FSA data. Most of the country’s ghost pumpkins are grown in Illinois.

Outside of Illinois, farmers are importing varieties from all over the world much in the same way that vineyards specialize in certain types of wine because of their region and climate.

Mammoth pumpkins hail from places like North Carolina, while mini pumpkins are grown in states such as Washington, Indiana and Texas.

Skagit County, Washington, is one of the top producers of mini pumpkins. Just north of Seattle, the county planted more than half a square mile of mini pumpkins, according to FSA data.

Eddie Gordon, co-owner of a farm there, said that fall decor has been popular for a long time, but that with platforms like Instagram the intensity has grown. Consumers now hunt for the most unusual pumpkins to complete their fall decor.

He said that anything from color to stem length make pumpkin posts stand out.

“The more dramatic they are the better,” he said.

“They should look like Rembrandt paintings.”

CORRECTION (Oct. 25, 2021, 10:30 a.m. ET): A previous version of this article misstated Raghela Scavuzzo's title. She is an associate director at the Illinois Farm Bureau, not the executive director.

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