Did you know the Peoria area is home to the two largest pumpkin processing plants in the entire United States? The Seneca Foods processing plant is in Princeville, and Libby's is located in Morton. If you are going to make or purchase a pumpkin pie for your Thanksgiving meal, it's highly likely the pumpkin was processed at one of those locations.
There are thousands of acres within an 80-mile radius of Peoria that supply pumpkins to these two plants. These are not jack-o'-lantern type pumpkins; the variety used in canned pumpkins is called Dickinson. It’s an ideal processing pumpkin because the meat is much thicker, which means the hollow space inside is smaller. Most will weigh between 10 and 20 pounds.
These pumpkins are grown similar to corn and soybeans. The farmer contracted with the company tills the land in preparation for planting, which is done in mid- to late May, after the soil has warmed up and the chance of a frost has passed, as pumpkins are very susceptible to cold weather. The company actually plants the seed. Seeds are planted in 60-inch rows at a population of 10,000 or less seeds per acre—much less than traditional crops of corn and soybeans. (Corn is planted at 30,000 seeds per acre, and soybeans are around 160,000 seeds per acre.)
Aside from weeds competing with the pumpkin plants during the growing season, growers must keep a keen eye on powdery mildew disease and the squash beetle, as both can attack a pumpkin crop. Farmers will use crop rotation practices with pumpkins, planting a different crop—typically corn or soybeans—following the harvest. This will help break any cycles of disease and insects.
At harvest, the pumpkins are rolled into rows in the field, and machine pickers with conveyor belts gently pick them up and load them onto trucks. An average yield is 20 to 30 tons per acre, but yields can vary with the weather, just like corn and soybeans. Pumpkins like heat and well-drained soil conditions. The pumpkins are transported directly to either the Princeville or Morton plants, and processed within 24 hours. At the plant, the trucks dump the pumpkins, which are immediately washed and run through a slicer. The seeds are cleaned out, and the meat of the pumpkin is puréed. The pumpkin is then cooked in the can or cooked and packed in bulk containers and shipped to bakeries.
The seeds of the pumpkins are also used. Some are saved to replant for the following year, while others are used in products like pet feed and wild bird seed.
While the acreage planted to pumpkins may not rank as high as corn and soybeans, they are still a vital part of our economy. Each acre of pumpkins generates jobs for farm equipment, fertilizer, trucks, fuel, metal cans and labels. iBi