Monroe County’s Pumpkin Man
Nathan Johanning is a man of many talents, and one is a passion to grow pumpkins.
He satisfies that “inner need” on the family farm near Fults.
When he is not focusing on his full-time job as an agriculture educator with the University of Illinois Extension office in Waterloo, he has grown these fruits and expanded to annually grow an estimated 6,700 plants on a five-acre plot of land.
The crop includes 55 varieties of pumpkins of various sizes, colors and uses, and he also grows squashes and gourds.
The pumpkins run the gamut of colors from traditional orange to white, blue and red, and the uses range from decorations and displays – especially at Halloween – to producing foods such as pies, soups and breads.
This must be a lot of effort. Is it worth it?
“You have to enjoy your field work. You have to enjoy producing the product and you have to appreciate your customers,” he said.
An educator and counselor by day, Johanning enjoys answering questions and educating customers.
Pumpkins normally reach harvest by Labor Day, though they are running a week or two late this season.
At the Johanning Farm, the five-acre plot moves around annually as corn, soybean and wheat crops are rotated from field to field without need for tilling. It is planted over a harvested winter wheat field in June, with the straw from the harvested wheat covering the ground and holding moisture.
Illinois is the top producer nationwide of pumpkins, most of which are processed into food products. They are concentrated in the central part of the state, with Morton being tagged as the “Pumpkin Capital of the World” for its claim to be the site of manufacturing 85 percent of canned pumpkin food products in the world.
“You can grow pumpkins from seeds,” Johanning said.
But for two reasons, he starts them in 72-cell trays.
“This enables the seeds to get a good start,” he explained, “and having them segregated by varieties in the trays helps organize where the various varieties are planted.”
That, in turn, allows him to harvest specific kinds for marketing.
Johanning does not sell pumpkins directly at his farm. He sells them at farmer’s markets and other events, as well as to retail stores and wholesalers in southwestern Illinois and the St. Louis area.
“When it gets cooler, people start to want pumpkins,” he said. “Some will seek me out every weekend.”
Johanning has been a fixture at two Monroe County events for many years: Waterloo Pumpkinfest and Maeystown Oktoberfest. Both events are cancelled this year due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
“Fortunately, demand is continuing to grow,” he said. “Hopefully, people staying at home more this year will help boost their uses of these products there.”
Nathan is a fourth-generation farmer.
“My great-grandpa bought the property in 1914,” he said.
As a child, Nathan’s parents Wayne and Therese brought him from his home in Greenup to the farm often throughout the year, where he learned the trade next to his grandparents, Walter and Esther.
After high school, Johanning – already “infected” with farming – attended Southern Illinois University Carbondale, where he graduated with a degree in plant and soil science in 2005.
He stayed at SIUC to finish his master’s degree in 2010. During his graduate work and research, he met his wife, Heather.
After working for the U of I Extension in Jackson, Perry, Randolph, Williamson and Franklin counties, Johanning seized an opportunity to move near the old family farm when a job opened at the Monroe County office.
Where can you find Johanning’s pumpkins and get questions answered about the fruit?
He can be found at the Waterloo Farmer’s Market in the Family Video parking lot every Saturday from 7:30 a.m. to noon.
He will also be in Waterloo on the first and third Sunday afternoons, Oct. 4 and Oct. 18, at the location of the old Dodge dealership at Market and Mill streets.
He will be in Maeystown Oct. 11 and 12, from 1-4 p.m. Saturday and 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday.
And there is a fifth generation getting ready at the Johanning Farm. Nathan and his wife have three children: 3-year-old son Ethan and 1-year-old twin daughters Lilah and Jessa.
“Ethan is already engaging in farming activity and wants to be here every day,” Nathan said, looking across the fields and his special pumpkin patch with a warm smile.