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A smashing year for pumpkin crop

One-year-old Evan Maddox Yorkville seems befuddled by amount pumpkins field Heap's Giant PumpkFarm Minooka. Even after harvesting for both wholesale

One-year-old Evan Maddox of Yorkville seems befuddled by the amount of pumpkins in the field at Heap's Giant Pumpkin Farm in Minooka. Even after harvesting for both wholesale and retail sales, thousands of pumpkins remain in the field waiting to be picked. | Steven Buyansky~Sun-Times Media

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Why is it called a jack-o’-lantern?

Jack-o’-lanterns began as a celebration of Halloween in Scotland and Ireland, and originally they were carved out of turnips. When settlers from those countries arrived in America, they found that the native-American pumpkin gourd was bigger and easier to carve.

According to one folk tale, the name comes from a thief named Stingy Jack, who tricked the evil into promising never to take his soul to Hell. But when Jack died, he couldn’t get into Heaven, either. So now he became “Jack of the Lantern,” wandering the Earth looking for a resting place, his way lighted by a hollowed-out turnip containing a glowing ember from the fires of Hell.

And you thought this tradition was just a charming bit of childhood fun?

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Updated: November 16, 2012 6:21AM

Kids going to Norton’s Hollow outside St. Charles for autumn fun this year won’t be able to go through the usual corn maze.

Stunted by the drought, Ben Norton’s corn crop died a month early. To avoid it being damaged, he went ahead and harvested it before his farm opened its pre-Halloween fun and produce sales.

But there will be plenty of pumpkins for sale.

Illinois grows more pumpkins than any other state, and area farmers report that the same dry, hot conditions that have done a number on more conventional crops like corn and soybeans actually have done pumpkin patches a favor.

“For a long time, everyone trying to grow pumpkins around here was having trouble with diseases,” explains Chris Gaitsch, co-owner of Randy’s Vegetables along Randall Road, just north of I-90 in Elgin. “And the more moist it is, the worse those diseases are. Some people had just about given up, saying you can’t grow pumpkins in this area.”

With this year’s drought, “we lost our peas and we lost our beans, and of course we had trouble with the field corn,” Gaitsch said. “But the pumpkins did fine.”

“If the weather is too wet, a vine just sits in the moisture and tends to rot,” said co-owner Terry Goebbert at one of the area’s biggest pumpkin and fun farms, Goebbert’s Pumpkin Patch along Route 47 near Pingree Grove. “But the nice summer this year made them ripen up well.”

“We’ve had some good pumpkins the last two years, but this year was better than ever,” said Goebbert, whose in-laws run the similar Goebbert’s Pumpkin Farm in South Barrington.

Dan Egel, a plant pathologist at Purdue University in Indiana, said the vine-like pumpkin plant needs some water, of course. But just a little will do the trick, especially since, unlike corn and bean plants, the pumpkin vine sends roots deep into the soil and can find moisture lingering far below the surface.

Norton said pumpkins — planted from seed — also are planted later in the season than corn and soybeans, not until late May or early June. So they missed some of the drought while benefitting from the lack of disease-encouraging moisture.

It’s a sharp — and welcome — break from recent years, when soggy conditions have hurt the nation’s pumpkin production. In 2009, farmers hired by Nestle to grow pumpkins for the Libby’s canning plant near Morton had to leave much of their crop in the field after rain saturated the ground, bogging tractors down in the mud. The result was a shortage of canned pumpkin that created bidding wars for the stuff on eBay during the holidays.

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