Alan Walters has jack-o’-lantern pumpkins on his front stoop — not carved, because the fruit wouldn’t last long if it was.
He has a couple of blue Jarrahdales, too, edible pumpkins known for their bluish skin and dense flesh. He likes to bake them in butter or olive oil in a casserole dish. Afterward, the pumpkin’s flesh can be mashed for use in muffins or pies.
A professor of vegetable science and breeding at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, Walters knows his pumpkins. They’re “part of Americana,” he said.
The leading pumpkin producer in the United States, Illinois harvested 15,900 acres last year, more than twice as many acres as any other state, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. About 80% of the pumpkins grown in Illinois are processing pumpkins, whose destinies are more likely to land them in pie tins than on a front porch.
But climate change is a growing concern.
“If temperatures keep rising, it’s going to be hard to grow pumpkins in southern Illinois,” Walters said.
At the SIU Horticulture Research Center in Carbondale — where summer heat indexes can top 100 degrees — Walters is working on a solution. He believes he’s two or three years out from the development of several pumpkin varieties that he and his team have bred specifically to withstand higher temperatures.
When it’s too hot in the summer — and for pumpkins, that means when temperatures climb above 90 degrees or so — pumpkins abort their flowers. Extreme heat means the fruit has to spend too much energy on survival; there isn’t enough to spare for reproduction.
Size is another issue. Growers typically want their jack-o’-lantern pumpkins to be about 15 to 20 pounds, depending on the market. But when it’s too hot, pumpkins simply can’t grow as big.
“When you’re producing pumpkins only 8 to 10 pounds, that’s not very good,” Walters said. “That would be smaller than a volleyball.”
Midwest farmers will be increasingly challenged by warmer, wetter and more humid conditions from climate change, according to a comprehensive report by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Illinois has become 1.2 degrees warmer and 10% to 15% wetter in the past century.
According to Trent Ford, the state climatologist, high nighttime temperatures can be particularly problematic for pumpkin growth. In Illinois, nighttime minimum temperatures are increasing during the summer at four to five times the rate of daytime maximums, he said.
Walters’ goal is to create hybrids: pumpkins that consistently have good heat tolerance and bear large, quality, uniform fruit.
But hybrids are not bred in a day, or even in a year. Walters and his team have been crossing varieties that can withstand heat with others that provide good yields.
Pumpkins have both male and female flowers, but only the female flowers bear fruit. Before they make a cross, Walters and his team of researchers cover the pumpkins’ flowers to avoid any natural pollination by bees and other insects. The next day, they uncover the now-opened flowers and transfer pollen from a male pumpkin flower to a female pumpkin flower.
Next, they breed generations of pumpkins from those initial crosses in order to make pumpkins that are as genetically stable as possible.
“You’re just making them inbreds,” Walters explained.
“When you go buy a pumpkin, you want to see a big pile of pumpkins that look all about the same,” he said.
It takes generations — and therefore years — to make a generation of pumpkins that can be used to produce hybrids with consistent traits.
If all goes well, within a few years Walters and his team will have created hybrid pumpkin seeds that will be available to farmers for purchase.
On a bright Sunday in mid-October, hundreds of pumpkins covered the hay-strewn grounds at Jack’s Pumpkin Pop-Up in Goose Island. Bright orange jack-o’-lantern pumpkins were scattered about along with fruits of all shapes and sizes, from flatter white varieties to elongated gourds adorned with warts.
Kabir and Meher Bais of West Town, who are about to turn 6 months old, were experiencing their first fall.
The twins’ mother, Garima Bais, said she likes to decorate pumpkins, though the only pumpkin-related food she enjoys is pie. She wanted to have pictures of her children among the pop-up’s gourds and hay bales so she could one day show them these memories.
Having seasons is one of the benefits of living in the Midwest, said their father, Abhijeet Bais.
“I would love to have these guys at 18 years old still have the same diversity or types of pumpkins available as we’ve had in our generation,” he said.
“And climate too, right, and weather too,” Garima Bais added.
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In Illinois, most agricultural climate change concerns have been focused on corn and soybeans. The state is among the top producers of these crops, which in part contribute to a more-than-$19 billion-a-year industry, according to the Illinois Department of Agriculture.
In 2019, the second-wettest year on record, about 1.2 million acres of corn and soybeans went unplanted, according to a Nature Conservancy report on climate change in Illinois.
Pumpkins are considered a specialty crop that has “sort of been second fiddle,” when it comes to climate change discussions, said Ford, the state climatologist.
Drought is challenging for farmers, of course. But so is too much rainfall, which can cause fungal disease, particularly because pumpkins grow on the ground.
Heavy rains in central Illinois caused canned pumpkin shortages in 2009 and again in 2015.
Nathan Johanning — who grows pumpkins in Fults, Illinois, and also works as a commercial agriculture educator with the University of Illinois extension program — said changes in rainfall patterns have felt slightly more troubling over the past few years than changes in temperatures.
Rising temperatures are “so gradual, it can be hard to notice,” Johanning said.
Not so for precipitation.
“Some of the rainfall shifts that we’ve seen have led to some very dry drought years and then also some excessively wet years,” he said.
Johanning said his farm has been in his family for more than a century; this is their 16th year growing pumpkins. In a typical year, Johanning, his wife and his parents might harvest 8,000 to 10,000 jack-o’-lantern pumpkins, in addition to other, smaller gourds.
Jack-o’-lantern pumpkins, which are the focus of Walters’ research, are grown throughout the state. But the majority of pumpkins produced in Illinois are for food and are grown largely in central Illinois.
Illinois produces between 90% and 95% of the processed pumpkins grown in the country, Ford said.
And most of those pumpkins are processed by Libby’s, a Nestle brand, based in Morton, Illinois.
Jim Ackerman is the agriculture manager for Libby’s.
“We’ve been lucky the last five years, I’ll say; that weather has been helpful to us, but always concerned about what Mother Nature could do,” he said.
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