Pumpkin problems claim Neponset farmer’s crop

Fall is the season for Jack O’Lanterns and pumpkin pies, but there won’t be any pumpkin crop for a Bureau County farmer. He’s looking for answers while the rest of us wonder about price and supply.

Pumpkins are a way of life for fifth generation farmer John Miller, 70.

“I’ve grown them for about 25 years,” he said. “It’s in my blood. I like growing pumpkins.”

But something called bacterial leaf spot is trying to change that.

“You can see how this one collapsed,” he said.

It starts smaller than an eraser tip and leads to secondary infections.

“Looks good on this side, but not here,” he said.

There’s no treatment or cure, and it’s claiming his entire harvest this year. That’s up to 40,000 pumpkins that were destined for the Wal-Mart Distribution Center.

“Look closely,” he said. “It can be rejected at the warehouse. We lose the entire load.”

This is actually the second consecutive year that Miller battled bacterial leaf spot. It wiped out about 75% of his pumpkin crop last year.

While Miller isn’t the only Illinois pumpkin farmer with this problem, he says he’s the only one with crop insurance to cover the losses. That will help him to bounce back after another tough harvest last year.

“It’s like the breeze blowing today,” he said. “Where did it come from, where is it going? It’s the same with bacteria.”

And it’s a big concern since Illinois grows nearly all of the nation’s edible pumpkins. The University of Illinois Extension is looking for solutions.

“Those people that are making pumpkin pies or buying it off the shelf, most of them come from about a hundred miles of here,” said Jeff West, representing the Illinois Extension’s Henry-Stark office.

For the first time in a quarter-century, the Millers won’t have any pumpkins to sell. It’s a sign of the times at their shuttered roadside market. They don’t think it will lead to pumpkin shortages or price hikes, but it sure is puzzling.

For John Miller, it’s about keeping a tradition from ending on his Neponset farm.

“I love the fall,” he concluded. “We have a harvest of what the land provided. I just would like to keep it.”