Photo by olia danilevich from Pexels

Pumpkin Season in America

This month, Americans have jack-o'-lanterns on their front porches, cafes smell of "pumpkin spices", and in a few weeks we'll eat pumpkin pie for Thanksgiving. Also, yesterday was national pumpkin day.  

Americans have a different relationship with the pumpkin than the rest of the world. In most places, including where I grew up in New Zealand, the pumpkin is a vegetable to eat with the main course of a meal, perhaps roasted, curried, or stir-fried.  In the US, the pumpkin is to be carved or made into a dessert pie.

However, the pumpkin belongs to America. It is native to Mexico and the southern United States. Immigrants brought traditions that they adapted to the pumpkin.

People have made Halloween jack o' lanterns for centuries, originally in Ireland by carving turnips or potatoes.  The pumpkin seems like an upgrade.

Pumpkin spices --- cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, mace, and cloves --- are what make pumpkin pie palatable and what Starbucks puts in lattes in the fall. These spices come from the Maluku Islands in Indonesia. The Dutch East India Company brought them to Europe, where they appeared in recipes in the 18th century. The blend we now know as pumpkin spice was originally known as mixed spices.

Every state in the US produces some pumpkins, but very few states produce a lot of pumpkins. The most recent Agricultural Census shows numerous counties with fewer than 200 acres of pumpkins. These farms are mostly the pumpkin patches where people go to buy some pumpkins to carve and get lost in the corn maze. 

Pumpkin Acreage map
Source: NASS Quickstats and R code linked at end of article.


Measuring historical annual pumpkin production is difficult, likely because the annual NASS surveys missed the small pumpkin patches in years before 2016.  In the six states that enter the NASS survey consistently, annual production has typically been 4-5 million pounds, with Illinois the largest producer (well, except for this guy). Since 2016, the remaining states have reported production of about 2.5 million pounds.

Pumpkin production
Source: NASS Quickstats and R code linked at end of article.


This plot shows harvested acreage from the survey alongside census data for the most recent four censuses.  About 95,000 acres of pumpkins are harvested every year. There are 1000 times more acres of corn.

Prior to the 2017 census, the survey produced relatively accurate data for six states and missed the remaining states. The two matched better in 2017, which suggests the post-2016 production data provide better estimates of production.  (Note: extracting county data and aggregating yields substantially lower acreage numbers in the census than when extracting data at the state level.)

Pumpkin Acreage
Source: NASS Quickstats and R code linked at end of article.

In the 2020 NASS survey, 13 states reported pumpkin production. 

Pumpkin production
Source: NASS Quickstats and R code linked at end of article.


For more on pumpkin production in the US, see this nice post by the Economic Research Service at USDA.

Happy Halloween.

You can replicate the figures in this article using this R code.