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No drought downside seen in pumpkin crop

Four-year-old NailNunez Elgruns through group pumpkins Friday Goebberts PumpkFarm Pingree Grove.    October 12 2012 | Michael Smart~Sun-Times

Four-year-old Naila Nunez of Elgin runs through a group of pumpkins Friday at Goebberts Pumpkin Farm in Pingree Grove. October 12, 2012 | Michael Smart~Sun-Times Media

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Why is it called a jack-o’-lantern?

Jack-o’-lanterns began as a celebration of Halloween in Scotland and Ireland, and originally they were carved out of turnips. When settlers from those countries arrived in America, they found that the native-American pumpkin gourd was bigger and easier to carve.

According to one folk tale, the name comes from a thief named Stingy Jack, who tricked the evil into promising never to take his soul to Hell. But when Jack died, he couldn’t get into Heaven, either. So now he became “Jack of the Lantern,” wandering the Earth looking for a resting place, his way lighted by a hollowed-out turnip containing a glowing ember from the fires of Hell.

And you thought this tradition was just a charming bit of childhood fun?

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Updated: October 14, 2012 10:53PM

ST. CHARLES TWHP. — Kids going to Norton’s Hollow on Route 64 for autumn fun this year won’t be able to go through the usual corn maze. Stunted by the spring/summer drought, Ben Norton’s corn crop died a month early. To avoid it being damaged, he went ahead and harvested it before his farm opened its pre-Halloween fun and produce sales.

But there will be plenty of pumpkins for sale.

Illinois grows more pumpkins than any other state, and area farmers report that the same dry, hot conditions that have done a number on more conventional crops like corn and soybeans actually have done pumpkin patches a favor.

“For a long time, everyone trying to grow pumpkins around here was having trouble with diseases,” explains Chris Gaitsch, co-owner of Randy’s Vegetables along Randall Road, just north of I-90 in Elgin. “And the more moist it is, the worse those diseases are. Some people had just about given up, saying you can’t grow pumpkins in this area.”

With this year’s drought, “we lost our peas and we lost our beans, and of course we had trouble with the field corn,” Gaitsch said. “But the pumpkins did fine.”

“If the weather is too wet, a vine just sits in the moisture and tends to rot,” said co-owner Terry Goebbert at one of the area’s biggest pumpkin and fun farms, Goebbert’s Pumpkin Patch along Route 47, north of Big Timber Road near Pingree Grove. “But the nice summer this year made them ripen up well.”

“We’ve had some good pumpkins the last two years, but this year was better than ever,” said Goebbert, whose inlaws run the similar Goebbert’s Pumpkin Farm on Route 72 in South Barrington.

Deep roots

Dan Egel, a plant pathologist at Purdue University in Indiana, said the vine-like pumpkin plant needs some water, of course. But just a little will do the trick, especially since, unlike corn and bean plants, the pumpkin vine sends roots deep into the soil and can find moisture lingering far below the surface.

Norton said pumpkins — planted from seed — also are planted later in the season than corn and soybeans, not until late May or early June. So they missed some of the drought while benefitting from the lack of disease-encouraging moisture.

With a large population nearby and the “pumpkin farm” industry thriving, most pumpkins grown in Kane County are decorative varieties used for carving jack-o’-lanterns. They are either sold to Chicago-area stores or are marketed, as Randy’s and Goebbert’s do with most of theirs, directly through their zoolike pumpkin farms. Many offer “pick your own” opportunities right in the pumpkin patch.

In Central Illinois, most farmers grow different varieties of pumpkin for the commercial market, selling many of them to the Libby’s division of the Nestle Co. to be made into canned pie filling. And there too, an Associated Press reporter learned this week, a crop that has often been devastated by diseases caused by too much rain thrived in this summer’s drought.

“Pumpkins have been kind of a bright spot in production this year,” said John Ackerman, 51, whose farm near Morton, Ill., has been in his family for more than a century.

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.

Cans on eBay

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 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, 2010, 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 Northeastern United States.

“Mother Nature can mess with you, and there can be consequences,” said Nestle spokeswoman Roz O’Hearn. “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 the carving or ornamental pumpkins grown in Kane County.

Growing the giants

Yet another kind of pumpkin was genetically bred to become a giant. Heap’s Giant Pumpkin Farm, on Route 52 near Minooka, grows 90 varieties of pumpkins, gourds and squash since the Heap family opened a pumpkin and fun farm in 2001 on the land where they had been producing hogs, cattle, soybeans, oats and hay since the year after the Civil War ended.

Now Heap’s specializes in pumpkins of 150 pounds or more. And in 2009 it grew one that weighed in at a massive 612.4 pounds.

“We grew some Atlantic giants,” said Chris Gaitsch at Randy’s Vegetables. “A couple for sale here are 200 pounds or so, and we have others that are 50 pounds or 70 pounds.”

Still, as all farmers do, the Fox Valley’s pumpkin-pushers know that next year could be a wholely different story.

“Unfortunately, the diseases didn’t go anywhere,” notes Randy Gaitsch of Randy’s Vegetables. “They’re still in the ground, waiting for a wet summer.”

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

For a complete list of pumpkin farms in the area, with hours and attractions, see

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