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Fungus hitting Illinois pumpkin crops could be devastating to industry

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JACKSONVILLE — A fungus that has affected pumpkins dating back to the Irish Potato Famine of the mid-1800s is reemerging in Illinois for the third time in 30 years — and it's devastating the canned pumpkin industry.

Phytophthora capsici has the potential to decimate pumpkin crops, as well as other fruit and vegetable crops. It was detected earlier this month near Morton, in Tazewell County, less than 100 miles north of Jacksonville.

"Right now, it has moved to the fruits," said Mohammad Babadoost, professor and faculty Extension specialist at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. "I was just in the area and (am) heading back there" Thursday morning.

Recent rains and higher temperatures across west-central Illinois and north toward Morton have created the perfect formula for the fungus to start destroying crop roots and growth.

"It's mainly because of the rainfall in the previous weeks," said Duane Friend of Jacksonville's University of Illinois Extension office.

Standing water fuels the fungus and crops that are low to the ground will help spread it.

"It helps create the spores and then it can spread through the soil," Friends said, adding that it then will spread from the soil through the crops.

The fungus is the same one that hit pumpkin crops in 1990 and the early 2000s, wiping out the crops that provided more than 80% of the canned pumpkin on the market.

"It could have the potential," Friend said. "It can decrease the yields."

The fungus also can affect bell peppers, melons, cucumbers, zucchini and squash.

Fungicide treatments can be applied, which is one of the best ways to battle the fungus, Babadoost said, adding that such treatments will "hopefully contain it."

Illinois produces three times more pumpkins than any other state, with Nestle USA owning around 5,000 pumpkin-dedicated acres in Morton. That crop becomes Libby's canned pumpkin.

"Morton is known as the world capital of pumpkins," Babadoost said.


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