By TIM ALEXANDER
PRINCEVILLE, Ill. — The outlook for pumpkins this October varies, according to experts and growers. Pumpkins for processing seem to be in good supply after a relatively successful growing season, meaning there should be plenty of canned pumpkin available at supermarkets.
Ornamentals – including pumpkins grown for jack-o’-lanterns – however, may be in short supply in some areas by Halloween week because of an unusually hot summer that shortened the growing season in Illinois. This is according to Mohammed Babadoost, professor of plant pathology and extension specialist for the University of Illinois at Urbana, and Joe House, a champion giant and ornamental pumpkin grower south of Princeville in northern Peoria County.
“With the giants, early in the season it was water. Then it was too hot, and things didn’t pollinate at the end of June or before. Many of them were aborted,” said House, a retired high school agriculture teacher who began growing pumpkins eight years ago and delved into agritourism a couple years back.
Along with his wife, Lauri, he grows 185 varieties of pumpkins, 30 gourd varieties and 25 types of Indian corn at his farm, known as The Pumpkin Place.
Meanwhile, field pumpkins suffered from heat and early maturity, House said. “These pumpkins are now three weeks ahead of time. There are concerns that because of this and the wet weather, there may be some problem with decay. Instead of making it to October 31, these pumpkins could start going bad by the end of the first week of October.”
In comparison, the watermelons he plants for food are at least a month ahead of schedule. “The growing degree days we had in May, June and July were unbelievable.”
Babadoost is getting reports from growers across the state that their jack-o’-lantern supply may not last until Halloween. “Not all growers, but some of them did not take care of powdery mildew very well or they planted too early,” he said.
“And in my 20 years in Illinois, this has been the only year I have seen such sunburn on large jack-o’-lantern pumpkins of 12 to 20 pounds, particularly the early-produced ones. This is not the case just in Illinois, but also in Indiana and in Ohio.”
Another problem affecting producers this summer was bacterial spot, Babadoost explained. “It has been really noticeable this year because of the moisture and the rains, often of several inches at a time. In south-central Illinois, we usually don’t have a major bacterial problem, but this year we do.
“Some of the growers who have contracts with stores will have to discard the pumpkins with bacterial spot.”
House’s agritourism farm, located on rural Oertley Road, was bustling on a recent Sunday afternoon. After 34 years teaching agriculture at Princeville High School, he seems settled into his second career as a grower of specialty pumpkins and gourds.
“It started as a hobby. Each year it has grown bigger, and now it is no longer a hobby – it’s my job,” said House, who has taken top honors at the Morton Pumpkin Festival open class giant pumpkin competition for the past three consecutive years.
He said his production cost for giant pumpkins is “relatively low” compared with that of other growers he knows. “It is not unthinkable that some growers spend as much as $1,000 to produce one giant pumpkin, between labor, fertilizer costs, miniature greenhouses, soaker hoses and seed. Giants will take up to 50 gallons of water (per day) easily. But winners can take home $2 per pound, or up to $4,000 per pumpkin in the bigger competitions,” he said.
“My 500-plus-pound pumpkins are actually pretty small. In Lockport, it will take a 2,000-pound pumpkin to win. My biggest has been 997 pounds. There are not a lot of giant pumpkin growers in Illinois, and most of them are in the north where they have the big weigh-ins.”
Producers have been making steady progress in preventing and treating downy mildew and other common pumpkin diseases and viruses, according to Babadoost. Last year downy mildew came to northeastern Illinois but was largely eradicated by spraying. Phytophthora blight, another pumpkin fungus, threatened the processing pumpkin industry in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
“We worked hard and now there are no serious problems,” he said. “There were maybe two or three fields with some losses (this year). It is no longer a big problem.”
There have been no widespread outbreaks in Illinois of other common pumpkin diseases such as anthracnose, fusarium crown rot, gummy stem blight or black rot so far in 2018, according to reports.
“I want everyone to know that there should be no shortage of canned pumpkin pie filler in stores this Thanksgiving,” said Babadoost.