Pumpkins are a 33-million dollar industry in Illinois. And as our Steve Sanders reports in tonight’s Cover Story, an area around Morton, Illiois grows more pumpkins than all 49 other states combined.
“It’s a big deal for Morton,” says Tom Laatsch. “Pretty much everybody knows, Morton’s the pumpkin capital of the world!” Laatsch has spent most of his 62 years on farms. And from seed to harvest, you’d be hard pressed to find anyone more knowledgeable about pumpkins. “The most fun part of the job is the growers. I really enjoy having a good crop, using my knowledge to get ‘em the best crop that they can.” Laatsch works for Nestle, which in addition to making chocolate products, makes Libby’s canned pumpkin; the world’s top seller. His job is to create partnerships with Morton area farmers like Phil Friedrich. “I’ve been driving tractor since I was almost too small to touch the pedals.”
Friedrich has never lived anywhere else. He’s the fifth generation to farm this land, though the first to plant pumpkins back in 1980. His father Lewis may have planted the seed by growing his own pumpkins as a kid. “It’s a different timing of operation than your other crops. So, you have the opportunity to try to get something done earlier in the fall.” The pumpkins grown here are called “Dickinsons” named after the family that brought pumpkins to central Illinois almost a century ago. They’re lighter in color, with a thinner skin, fewer seeds, and more meat; perfect for pumpkin pie.
Nestle contracted for 85-thousand tons of pumpkins this year. It will take 24 hour shifts, seven days a week for almost three months to meet the consumer demand. Morton operations manager Steve Beuttel explains the process. “The trucks are loaded in the field and brought onto the property where we’ll dump them and we will start cleaning them. We’ll chop the pumpkin in a couple different ways. And then it goes up to being cooked and prepared to make the puree. And then we will package it and put a label, and put it in a palette, and be ready to go to warehouse.”
In just a few hours, pumpkins are picked, processed, packaged, and ready for shipment. Hector Lopez is the Morton warehouse manager.“ It is hectic at some point. Everybody has to know their place and where to go.” Hector Lopez is a second generation plant employee who worked his way up from janitor to warehouse manager. He’s been at the plant 39 years. “Can you edit this out. (big laugh) I don’t like pumpkin pie myself.” (big laugh) He’s more of a pumpkin bread guy. Beuttel puts their volume in perspective.“We have produced enough pumpkin to make pumpkin pies that go end to end from one coast to the other across the United States.”
It sometimes surprises people that so much pumpkin comes from a small town in central Illinois. Not the Morton Chamber of Commerce’s Jennifer Daly. “Any Mortonite that you talk to, I think that our blood just runs orange. I mean we are extremely proud to be the pumpkin capital of the world.” About 15-thousand people call Morton home, though that number swells ten fold during the annual pumpkin festival in early September. “I think a lot of people grow up with pumpkin pie and it reminds them of the holidays.” That’s pumpkin farmer Phil Friedrich’s story. “I just always liked Thanksgiving. And that’s what you always think about turkey and pumpkin pie.” Friedrich is pretty much done picking pumpkins for this year. But, all the farmers around here hope the next time you bite into a pumpkin pie, you’ll think of Morton, Illinois. “The area’s had that opportunity and kept that opportunity. It’s pretty important to keep something you’ve had you know, keep it going.”
State Representative Keith Sommer from Morton has introduced legislation to make pumpkin pie the official state pie. Debate is expected next spring. In the meantime, here’s an early “Save the Date.” The 49th annual Morton pumpkin festival is set for September _____, 2015. Word to the wise, book your hotel rooms now. You can share this story and get more information by clicking here.
Producer Pam Grimes and Photojournalist Mike D'Angelo contributed to this report.