Geography of Pumpkins in the United States

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Every fall in the United States, pumpkin everything seems to abound. Pumpkin flavored coffee, pies, cakes, and other goodies are on offer. Pumpkins feature prominently in the U.S. celebrations of Halloween and Thanksgiving.

As a fitting symbol of the Fall season, October 26th is National Pumpkin Day each year.

The term “pumpkin” comes from the Greek word “pepon,” which means “big melon.”

Pumpkins (Cucurbita pepo) are one of the oldest domesticated plants, having been grown as early as 7,500 to 5,000 BC. Researchers carbon-dated pumpkins seeds found in the Guilá Naquitz cave in Oaxaca back to about 8,000 to 10,000 years ago.

Other members of the Cucurbita genus include cucumbers, melons, and squash.

A bunch of different pumpkins.

A winter squash, pumpkins originated in Central America. Pumpkins are now grown on all continents except for Antartica.

In addition to consuming pumpkins, the gourds are also popular as ornamental items and for carving as jack o’lanterns.

A Staple of Native Americans

Pumpkins have long been an important staple is certain regions for Native Americans. A highly nutritious fruit, pumpkins historically have been an important foods source for some Native American groups. Native Americans would plant the pumpkin alongside river banks alongside maize and beans, using a planting technique known as the “Three Sisters Method,” which allowed the three crops to coexist.

The first Thanksgiving included pumpkins although not in the form of pumpkin pie which is a staple of modern Thanksgiving celebrations.

An Irish American Tradition – Carving Pumpkins

The practice of carving pumpkins into what are known as jack o’lanterns was brought to the United States by Irish immigrants. In Irelands, potatoes and turnips were used to carve these creations. When Irish immigrants arrived in the United States, they switch to pumpkins which were easier to carve.

Which U.S. State Harvests the Most Pumpkins?

Pumpkin patch near Litchfield, Connecticut.
Pumpkin patch near Litchfield, Connecticut. Photo: Carol Highsmith, public domain via loc.gov.

According to the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) National Agricultural Statistics Service, in 2020 66,200 acres of pumpkins were harvested.

According to the USDA, all states produce pumpkins but in 2017, 40% of all pumpkins harvested came from six states: California, Illinois, Indiana, Texas, Virginia, and Michigan.

Graph showing Pumpkin acres harvested for the top six states, 2018-2020. Source: USDA.
Source: USDA

There are 16 states that have a significant harvest of pumpkins each year. Illinois leads the way with 15,900 acres of pumpkins harvested in 2020. Other top states for pumpkin harvests include Pennsylvania and Indiana.

Table: Acreage of Pumpkins Harvested by State: 2018-2020

State201820192020
California4,9004,7003,800
Illinois 11,00010,90015,900
Indiana5,5005,0006,000
Michigan 5,4005,4005,400
Minnesota 11,400(NA)(NA)
New Jersey 1 1,700(NA)(NA)
New York 5,7005,7005,600
North Carolina 2,3003,1002,600
Ohio 3,7003,5003,600
Oregon 2,5001,9002,200
Pennsylvania 5,7006,3007,000
Tennessee 1 1,600(NA)(NA)
Texas 4,900(D)3,700
Virginia 5,2005,6005,400
Washington 2,4002,6002,900
Wisconsin 3,700(D)2,100
Other States 26,500
United States Total67,60061,20066,200
Pumpkins for Fresh Market and Processing Area Planted and Harvested, 2018-2020. Source: Vegetables 2020 Summary (February 2021), USDA, National Agricultural Statistics Service.
Table footnotes: (D) Withheld to avoid disclosing data for individual operations. (NA) Not available. 1 Estimates discontinued in 2019. 2 Includes data withheld above.

Pumpkin Capital of the World

Morton, Illinois is known as the “Pumpkin Capital of the World” because 85% of the world’s canned pumpkin is packed here.

In Illinois, about 80% of pumpkin acres are planted for pie filling or other processing purposes, compared to only 3% in Michigan and even less in California and Virginia.

Close up of two large pumpkins.
Large pumpkins such at places such as pumpkin patches are used for ornamental purposes such as carving.

Pounds of Pumpkins Per Acre

The density of pumpkins per acre varies by state. Illinois grows an average of approximately 40,000 pounds of pumpkins per acre, California and Texas grow approximately 30,000 pounds per acre, and Indiana, Michigan, and Virginia grow approximately 20,000 pounds per acre.

1904 photo of farmers gathering large pumpkins.
“Gathering in the pumpkins in the Yakima Valley, Wash.” Photographer: B.W. Kilburn, 1904, Library of Congress.

Illinois grows three and a half times as many pumpkins as the next most productive state. Illinois produced 420 million pounds of pumpkins in 2019. In 2019, California and Indiana produced approximately 120 million pounds of pumpkins each, while Virginia produced approximately 90 million pounds and Michigan produced approximately 80 million pounds.

Pumpkin Sizes

Pumpkins can vary greatly in weight from small pumpkins that weigh less than one pound to huge pumpkins weighing over 1,000 pounds. The largest pumpkin every grown was by a Belgium grower whose pumpkin in 2016 weighed 2,624.6 pounds.

A display of small pumpkins at a grocery store.
Pumpkins are grown in a variety of different sizes and colors.

The largest recorded pumpkin in North America was grown in New Hampshire and weighed 2,528 pounds.

References

Oliveira, R. (2018, October 25). 10 things you probably didn’t know about pumpkins. University of California. https://www.universityofcalifornia.edu/news/10-things-did-not-know-pumpkins

Pumpkins: Background & statistics. (2020, October 26). USDA ERS. https://www.ers.usda.gov/newsroom/trending-topics/pumpkins-background-statistics/

Smith, B. D. (1997). The initial domestication of Cucurbita pepo in the Americas 10,000 years ago. Science276(5314), 932-934. DOI: 10.1126/science.276.5314.932

United States Department of Agriculture – National Agricultural Statistics Service. (2021, February). Vegetables 2020 Summaryhttps://downloads.usda.library.cornell.edu/usda-esmis/files/02870v86p/j6731x86f/9306tr664/vegean21.pdf

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