Pumpkins… In the Field and on Your Plate

Patrick Kirchhofer - Peoria County Farm Bureau

We finally had some significant rains in Peoria County by the second week of October, although they did not add to the final yield for corn and soybeans. The moisture did settle the dust, however, and was a welcome site for fields sown to wheat, or fields that had cover crops flown on a few weeks before harvest.

The corn and soybean harvest was ramping up by mid-October; the indications so far are that the yields are respectable. Much of the corn will be in the 180-to-220 bushel-per-acre range, with most soybean acreage yielding 60 to 70 bushels per acre. This year’s harvest is slightly later than normal, most likely due to the cooler weather we had in August. With the below-normal temperatures, both corn and soybean maturity slowed down.

Pumpkins are another popular crop in the Peoria area, with local farmers growing more than 10,000 acres of pumpkins each year. Approximately 90 percent of the commercially processed pumpkins in the U.S. are handled through either the Seneca plant in Princeville or the Libby's plant in Morton. We are fortunate to have both of them in the area, as they give an added boost to our local economy.

Pumpkin seeds are typically planted in May, after the corn and soybeans have been planted. The distance between the rows is 60 inches—a much wider spacing than corn, which is planted in 30-inch rows, or soybeans, which are mostly planted in 15-inch rows. The seed spacing in each pumpkin row will be only one seed per 12 to 24 inches, compared to a kernel of corn planted every six inches within a row, and a soybean seed every three inches. The reason for this? Pumpkins grow on vines which spread horizontally across the surface of the field, rather than vertically like corn and soybeans.

Pumpkins provide some diversity to the crops that can be grown by Peoria-area farmers. From an agronomic standpoint, they work well in a crop rotation; corn planted in a field that had pumpkins the year before will offer a better yield. As a general rule, yields will be better if crops are rotated each year, as this breaks up any disease or insect cycles specific to a crop. The typical rotation for most farms in the Midwest is just corn and soybeans, although on some farms with livestock, wheat and hay may be added in the rotation.

The average pumpkin yield this year for Peoria County farmers will be in the 20-to-25 tons-per-acre range. Yes, the pumpkin crop is measured in tons, unlike bushels for grain crops. And just like corn and soybeans, the weather will ultimately be a major factor in the final yield.

Pumpkins are a deep-rooted plant that like dryer growing conditions. Wet feet in June or July can reduce the final yield, as can cold weather. During a year with lower yields, the harvest will be in the 10-to-15 tons-per-acre range, while an excellent year will see a harvest of 30-plus tons per acre.

Quite possibly the biggest challenge in growing pumpkins is controlling the weeds. There is just not a good weed control program for pumpkins.

The commercially grown pumpkins in Peoria County are not the “jack-o-lantern” type of pumpkins that you purchase at the store. The variety used for processing and canning is called Dickinson. Dickinson pumpkins are pale orange in color, and one of the reasons they are an ideal, edible pumpkin is due to their thick flesh—much thicker than a jack-o-lantern pumpkin.

Many of you will have pumpkin pie on your dinner plate for Thanksgiving. You can feel good about that, as the bright orange color of pumpkins is a sure sign that it's full of beta-carotene. It's also a good source of vitamins C, K and E, and minerals including magnesium, potassium and iron. My advice: take the large slice. iBi

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