ST. LOUIS – Farmers in a stretch of Illinois where most of the nation's pumpkins are grown say their crop looks relatively smashing and is likely to be one of the few successes in a year when severe drought baked most of the nation's heartland.
The drought forced thousands of ranchers to sell off cattle because pastures were too dry to graze, and corn and soybean farmers watched their plants wither in the summer sun. But John Ackerman said most of the pumpkins he planted fared "fantastic" for a simple, single reason: Pumpkins dig dry weather.
"Pumpkins have been kind of a bright spot in production this year," said Ackerman, 51, whose farm near Morton, Ill., has been in his family for more than a century.
Pathology may help explain why pumpkins coped better than most crops at beating the heat. A relative of squashes, cucumbers, watermelons and cantaloupe, pumpkins tend to thrive in warm, temperate climates that stave off fungus, mold and other rind-rotting diseases that spread in wet conditions, said Dan Egel, a plant pathologist with Purdue University's extension.
Also, pumpkins grown from seeds — the most common way — have tremendous root systems that reach deep into the ground, enabling them to reach moisture that corn and other crops without taproots cannot find.
"I think we're going to have a pretty decent crop of pumpkins," Egel said.
Ackerman said he planted about 70 percent of his 30 acres of pumpkins in May, and that portion did well. He planted the rest of his pumpkins in late June and early July, about the time the drought really took hold, and they "sat in dust for a while" but are finally turning orange now.
It's a sharp — and welcome — break from recent years, when soggy conditions have hurt the nation's pumpkin production. In 2009, farmers hired by Nestle to grow pumpkins for the Libby's pumpkin-canning plant near Morton had to leave much of their crop in the field after rain saturated the ground, bogging tractors down in the mud. The result was a shortage of canned pumpkin that created bidding wars for the stuff on eBay during the holidays.
The next summer turned out to be among the wettest ever in Illinois, and pumpkin production plummeted in much of the state, although not around Morton. And last summer, the remnants of Hurricane Irene and other storms devastated the pumpkin crop in the Northeast.
"Mother Nature can mess with you, and there can be consequences," said Roz O'Hearn, a Nestle spokeswoman. "In the past couple of years, we've been at the opposite ends of the Mother Nature continuum."
This year, she said, "you'll be able to find pumpkins for your holidays."
Nestle produces more than 85 percent of the world's canned pumpkin each year under the Libby's label, and much of it comes from the area around Morton. The company hires farmers to grow Dickinson pumpkin, an oval-shaped, pale orange variety that's denser, meatier and less hollow than carving or ornamental pumpkins.
Farmers who irrigate seem to have produced bigger and more pumpkins than those who don't this year, O'Hearn said. But overall, she said, the harvest is "fine."