Pumpkins: Fresh vs. Canned for Thanksgiving

Consumers who buy a can of pumpkin at the store—as many people are doing this week—can be pretty sure the product inside was grown in Illinois.

But where does a fresh pumpkin come? That’s not quite so clear.

A recent report from USDA’s Economic Research Service gives a snapshot of pumpkin production. As usual, the leading pumpkin producing state is Illinois; other major producers are California, Texas, Pennsylvania, and Indiana. But Illinois’ production is principally for the processed market, which gets over 75 percent of the state’s output. Other states grow mainly for the fresh market—particularly the familiar Howden variety, popular for jack-o’-lanterns.

Pumpkins for processing fetch a much lower price than those for the fresh market. The ERS says that the value of Illinois pumpkins fell from $6 to $3 per 100 pounds from 2016 to 2018. During the same period, growers in other leading states averaged $16 to $20 per 100 pounds. Average prices in California and Pennsylvania topped $20 per hundredweight.

As for 2019, production figures “indicate an average year for Illinois and a healthy crop for California,” says ERS, adding, “Downy mildew, a pathogen which causes pumpkin leaves to die and reduces yields, was reported in several counties of Pennsylvania in September 2019.”

Pennsylvania pumpkin growers also endured long summer heat waves, which reduced the pollination of pumpkin flowers.

How much fresh-market pumpkin is actually eaten? That’s a statistic that no one appears to collect. There is considerable difference of opinion about working with the fruit. Food blogger Ruby Lott-Lavigna writes, “When it comes to cooking, pumpkins are a high-tier effort fruit. Not fun. Not easy. Not quick… Almost every pumpkin dish I research quietly suggests butternut squash as a better alternative.”

Enthusiasts, including many other food bloggers, disagree, touting roasting or using a slow cooker as easy means of preparation.

“Homemade pumpkin purée tastes so much better than store-bought,” we learn from The Zero-Waste Chef, not only for pies, but in roasted and purée forms.

Of course, in many if not most American kitchens, the pulp is scooped out for the jack-o’-lantern and thrown away, while canned product is used for the home-baked pie. That’s because the flesh of the larger Howden variety is less sweet and more watery than “pie pumpkin” or “sweet pumpkin” varieties such as Baby Pam, Fairytale, Cinderella, and Autumn Gold. Demand for these continues to expand as consumers seek out new and different taste experiences.

You’ll probably eat pumpkin pie this Thanksgiving, along with most other Americans. But the pumpkin in it is likely to have seen the inside of a can.

Richard Smoley, editor for Blue Book Services, Inc., has more than 40 years of experience in magazine writing and editing, and is the former managing editor of California Farmer magazine. A graduate of Harvard and Oxford universities, he has published eleven books.