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'Pumpkin geek' and his Illinois agritourism business prepare for a busy season

John Ackerman.jpg
Collin Schopp
/
WCBU
John Ackerman has owned and operated Ackerman Family Farms for 23 years.

John Ackerman has owned and operated Ackerman Family Farms, just outside of Morton, for 23 years. Before pumpkins, he grew up on the same farm, but a difficult period in the '90s required a turn to a different kind of crop.

“We tried some specialty crops because we thought we could intensively manage the acres that we farm fresh cut flowers, but it's hard to get people to stop on the highway for just one thing because you can get fresh cut flowers from other places,” he said. “We did some sweet corn roadside with some success, but again, not enough to feed a family of four. It turns out my children want to be fed every day.”

In 1998, Ackerman had grown some canning pumpkins to sell to Libby’s, but ended up with a few extra.

“So, I just brought them home for my kids to see when I got off the bus. People began to stop and say, Are those for sale?’” said Ackerman. “And of course, I said, ‘You bet they are.’ So we decided that was the start of a business.”

In 1999, Ackerman Family Farms had just over an acre of pumpkins, with around 20 varieties and a bell on a straw bale you could ring for service. Now, the farm is 30 acres and grows 160 varieties of pumpkins. It includes a corn maze created with GPS technology, a range of animals from donkeys to peacocks and weekend hay rack rides.

“It just really has grown,” said Ackerman. “It surprises me to this day.”

The farm does a “slow open” in late August and Ackerman said they’ve already seen some considerable business.

“We've been through the Pumpkin Festival. We had a soccer tournament nearby,” he said. “We've had some really busy days out here.”

Though the extra activities have grown over the years, Ackerman’s priority is the produce. He refers to himself as a “pumpkin geek.”

“Let’s see, Pumpkin Fun Fact LLC,” he says, calling to mind some of his favorite things about pumpkins. “They're still finding some (new varieties) in pockets of the world that have been kind of undiscovered for a long time. You're also breeding new ones all the time. But here's my odd fact: I guess I have heard that if you grow the largest pumpkin in the world on any given year, that you could sell the seeds from that pumpkin for between $100 and up to $1,000 a seed.”

He said as many as 30,000 pumpkins are harvested by hand to be sold to the public as decorations on the farm, while many more are harvested through a two-step process that brings pumpkins into a cart along a conveyor belt to be sent off to a factory for canning and processing.

Though the pumpkins rank very high, Ackerman said another favorite part of running the farm is the people.

“I like people. I like talking to people. Clearly, I’m an extrovert but I even kind of miss, well we've grown, I kind of miss that you can't talk to everybody who walks in,” he said. “But everybody has a story.”

Ackerman Farms.jpg
Collin Schopp
/
WCBU
As business grows, John Ackerman says more people come to the farm looking for pictures, so he's tried to create more places for the perfect photo opportunity.

The farm takes a staff of around 25 to 30 to operate. Many of those employees are local teenagers and students. Ackerman said he’s proud to be able to offer kids an opportunity for their first job.

“It's just a way to try to maintain this, being full-time farmers,” he said. “And now we've had three or 400 other teenagers that have worked for us, and now they're bringing their kids back to the farm.”

This is just one way Ackerman said the agritourism business helps contribute to the community. As another example, he tells a story from the farm’s early years.

“After 9/11 happened, nobody came out to the farm, everybody was glued to the TV. The next day, nobody came out to the farm. And I thought, ‘Wow, this tragedy that happened in New York City is even affecting a tiny little pumpkin farm in the middle of Illinois,’” he said. “But the next day, everybody came out. Because this was a day they wanted to get away from all the stress and the horror of what happened. And we felt so good that we had a place where people could do that.”

Over the years, the farm has worked to balance a growing customer base and the desire to be a family-owned and operated affair. Ackerman said the farm will need to keep walking the line and adapt as it continues to grow in the future.

“There are some business issues that are coming up like the increase in minimum wage. I can make you a case for it or against it,” he says. “But what I do know is that it's our biggest single expense out here, and it's going to roughly double inside of a six-year period. What's the future for that? If we have a bad crop here? Is that going to be the thing that finally, you know, is there an end game? Or is this gonna be something we pass onto the kids?”

Though there may be challenges in the farm's future, there’s one thing that’s for sure: Ackerman isn’t going to get tired of growing and eating pumpkins anytime soon.

“Matter of fact, I had squash soup last night,” he said. “So I just really truly love it. I remember I used to make maple syrup back in the day. And they said after you spent all day in the sugar shack, you'd want to eat dill pickles. But pumpkins, you just can't get enough. I don't think I'll ever run out of the desire to eat pumpkins.”

You can find more information about Ackerman Family Farms, including hours and events, here. You can also find a list of more agritourism businesses across the state here.

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Collin Schopp is a reporter at WCBU. He joined the station in 2022.