Food for Thought: Pumpkin Pie Made Possible by Migrant Workers

Nov 22, 2017

Credit Cass Herrington / Peoria Public Radio

A dessert that’s the centerpiece of many Thanksgiving tables this week depends on help from seasonal migrant workers. Many of whom travel from Texas and across the border to Morton, Ill. -- where nearly 90 percent of the world’s canned pumpkin is made.

Turkeys roost near a pumpkin patch, at Ackerman Family Farms. It’s about two miles away from Libby’s pumpkin canning factory. Farm owner John Ackerman says the plant, owned by Nestle, is central to this small town’s identity.

A million dollars goes through that plant every day. I go to church with people who are employed by Nestle, there are truckers, mechanics, office works, a lot of people that get employment here.

Ackerman contracts for Libby’s, growing the fleshy, brown gourds for pumpkin pies. But this past season, his 300-acre farmland was dotted with bright orange “ornamental pumpkins,” the decorative, front porch variety.

“Because of the pumpkins, which we build our festival around, it brings our community together,” Morton’s director of tourism Susan Pyles said.

She adds, when Fall harvest season rolls around, the village goes bananas for pumpkin. Highlights include a pie-eating contest, a pageant and a parade to herald the glorious gourd.

“We also have a contest called ‘pumpkin chuckin’ where we throw pumpkins," Pyles said.

Credit Cass Herrington / Peoria Public Radio

The tourism office says Morton’s festival draws an estimated 70,000 visitors annually.

But there’s another, less noticed, group of people who flock to this small, mostly white, Midwestern community. Farm workers who come to harvest and process the pumpkin that goes into that all-American pie.  

Pyles says there isn’t much interaction between the community and seasonal workers, because they’re out in the field or inside the canning plant.

“If we saw them, it wouldn’t be like we wouldn’t talk to them or anything," Pyles said. "They’re not really hanging out. Because they’re tired.”

Libby’s says its seasonal workforce is about 210 employees, who come for harvest in July. The company employs migrant workers on H-2B and H-2A visas, which permit seasonal jobs in food processing and agriculture. But the pumpkin season also employs workers like Jesus Garanzuay, who lives in the US, and splits his year between Texas and Illinois.   

“I work in the fields, I pick up the pumpkin,” Garanzuay said.

Jesus Garanzuay works for Seneca Foods Corp., based in Princeville. It’s a company that contracts for Libby’s.

“Sometimes I get exhausted, but I’m used to it. I’ve worked 10 years here. My dad worked here like 20 years ago. My dad works for sanitation on the plant,” Garanzuay said.

Garanzuay works Monday through Sunday, making about $1,900 a week. When the season’s over, he and his family pack up and return to the border town of Eagle Pass for other work in farming and construction.

"Do I like it Here?," Garanzuay said. "I don’t mind it here, but I like it better in Texas."

During harvest season, he rents a home with his family, to include his parents and siblings. His niece, Jasmine, goes to Princeville High School.

“Pretty much in school, there’s like, few Mexicans," Jasmine Guaranzuay said. "I feel weird, because people stare a lot...yeah, it’s difficult for me.”

Jasmine says she's also looking forward to returning to the border. She’ll bring pumpkin from the harvest along with her.

“My grandma, she lives in Mexico, so we take her pumpkins from here, and she makes empanadas,” she said.

Like Mexican pumpkin pie, she adds.

By the time families sit down for their Thanksgiving feasts this week, Libby’s seasonal workers will return home or to their next jobs.

Farmer John Ackerman, in Morton, says with the holiday’s focus on gratitude, he hopes Americans consider the people who help put the food on the table.