Look inside the 'Pumpkin Capital of the World'

ByJesse Kirsch WLS logo
Wednesday, October 30, 2019
Look inside the 'Pumpkin Capital of the World'
A few hours' drive from Chicago sits Morton, Ill., which locals refer to as the "Pumpkin Capital of the World." Here's why...

MORTON, Ill. (WLS) -- A few hours' drive from Chicago sits Morton, Ill., which locals refer to as the "Pumpkin Capital of the World."

"We hold hard to that claim," said Jim Ackerman, the ag manager for Nestle Libby's which cans pumpkin in Morton by the truckload.

"Most tons... most acres," Ackerman added, listing off the central Illinois village's credentials as we stood in a 115-acre field filled with one crop: pumpkins.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture supports those claims--at the state level, at least.

Regardless, it's clear this fall favorite reigns supreme in Morton. Orange dots rise and fall in neat rows for hundreds of yards, as if forming a pumpkin ocean.

Morton is this pumpkin nexus, according to Ackerman, because of the area's soil (a variety of soils in the area allow both early and late-start planting) and because of its sunlight exposure.

"Step outside, you'll smell pumpkins," quipped Shayla Rippey, who grew up in Morton.

The downtown store where she works, and several other businesses, have pumpkin decorations in the windows.

Pin it on agriculture, pin it on local lore, Libby's has made Morton home for nearly a century, canning "100% pure pumpkin" there. The distinct, sweet ingredient finds its way into all kinds of dishes, perhaps most notably pumpkin pie; Ackerman surmised 50,000 pies would come from the crop harvested in the one field we visited just outside town.

"If you're really hungry, come on down," he said.

Fortuantely, Libby's brings the pumpkin to you; but it's not a simple process. To clear just one field, a pair of tractors ride side-by-side. One sucked pumpkins up a conveyor belt, shooting them through the air into a massive bucket hitched to the second tractor. Multiple tractor teams ran up and down the pumpkin rows, leaving only vines behind. Then those dump carts emptied into semi-trailor trucks, which zipped back and forth between field and factory all day.

Back in Morton, the truckloads were emptied onto a massive conveyor belt taking pumpkins under a shower and into the factory.

Ackerman said inside the pumpkins are heated, further cleaned, pureed and canned.

Once cooked and sealed, the cans chug along the assembly line to the labeling station. Once "Libby's" is affixed to the can, that pumpkin is ready to go!