Aesthetically pleasing pumpkins are a dry weather perk for growers
As any farmer will tell you, you get what you get when it comes to the weather.
Although it has rained lightly in the past few days, conditions for the past several weeks have been so dry that all of McLean County falls into either one of two classifications, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor: Abnormally dry or moderate drought.
"There are a lot of different indicators and metrics that are used to go into the U.S. Drought Monitor — it's sort of an amalgamation," Illinois climatologist Trent Ford explained to WGLT. "What abnormally dry conditions typically mean for Illinois is that we're in a prolonged period — like three-to-six week period — of below normal rainfall that has caused concerns for possible dryness-related issues."
As conditions worsen, an area's status on the drought monitor ticks up. In the southwest and western parts of McLean County, where rainfall totals have been "30-50% of normal," Ford said, conditions are classified as moderate drought.
That's resulted in low-water levels in Sugar Creek and the Mackinaw River — and, for Bloomington residents recently, taste and odor issues with the water supply from the city's two lakes.
These are the downsides of the dry summer and early fall, but, as with most things, there is a silver lining. (Or, in this case perhaps, orange.)
"What we find in a drier year like we've had with our growing season this summer, we typically have really nice pumpkins," said Rader Family Farm's operations manager Adam Rader.
Rader said it's true that the yield of the Normal operation's 30 acres of pumpkin patches may be a little lower when the weather is exceptionally dry, but yield isn't the only concern that pumpkin growers have.
There's the aesthetics of the pumpkins, for one thing, which is especially applicable to the eight farm acres dedicated to self-guided picking. Drier conditions results in less diseased — and deformed — pumpkins.
"The specialties — like the white pumpkins — will typically get some scarring and, if they're sitting in wet soil, they'll have a brown spot where the soil scars them," Rader said. "We don't see that as much in dry years."
There's also an operations benefit, too. In addition to the pumpkins available for picking, Rader Family Farms (like others in central Illinois) has a retail display of pumpkins, gourds and other squash that are ready-to-go, no picking needed.
When the weather has been wetter, workers spend more time cleaning up the pumpkins before selling them.
"We at times wash the pumpkins when we bring them in and when a drier year happens, typically we don't have the splash-up and dirty bottoms because they're sitting in dry dirt," Rader said. "We like that from a growth perspective because it saves us a lot of time."
Rader Family Farms grows the kind of pumpkins used in carving jack-o'-lanterns, along with some varietals.
Illinois is one of the largest pumpkin-producing states in the U.S., with the village of Morton, about 40 minutes northwest of Bloomington-Normal, dubbed the Pumpkin Capital of the World.
That's due in part to the area being home to Libbys, a Nestle-owned operation spanning thousands of acres that produces more than three-quarters of commercial pumpkins for canning.
For people looking to get an ornamental pumpkin, perhaps one to carve, Rader said the best time to buy one — or pick one — is the second week of October.
"Part of that is cooler nights: You carve your pumpkin, you put it out and if it's really hot, it's going to spoil like any other vegetable or fruit you put in the sun," he said. "If you get it that second week, it can last until the end of the season."