MORTON — Two years after heavy rain early in the growing season decimated the central Illinois pumpkin crop, the rebound continues.

The 2017 crop of pumpkins now being harvested for canning at the Nestle-owned Libby's plant in Morton appears to be a little better than average, according to Jim Ackerman, agriculture manager for the canning facility.

"It's a little better than last year," Ackerman said this week as field crews prepared to gather rows of pumpkins that had been organized a day earlier by a farm implement with a large blade on the front.

"We got started in July this year, so a good, early start," Ackerman said. "We're about half done with harvest, so that's a good place to be."

Heavy rains drowned pumpkin vines in June 2015 during a critical stage of development that resulted in widespread shortages of pumpkin for consumption. A vast majority of the crop that provides for pumpkin pie and filling around the nation grows mostly within a 50-mile radius around Morton.

The crop returned to healthy status last year, with average to above average yields of 22 to 23 tons per acre on the roughly 8,000 acres where Libby's sources its main ingredient.

Once harvest begins, the operation continues around the clock, delivering 20-ton truckloads of pumpkins to the Morton facility for processing and canning. Crews contracted by Libby's can clear 70 to 80 acres per day.

Ackerman said he has come to rely on remote weather sensors and technology throughout the range of Libby's contract farmers to decide the best times to plant and harvest the crop.

"They send out 24-hour rainfall amounts every morning, so we're able to help farmers get planted on dry days," Ackerman said. "It helps us to judge how the crop is doing throughout the season."

The harvest will continue until the first hard freeze, though colder temperatures and frost can have an effect on the crop.

Matt Buedel can be reached at 686-3154 or mbuedel@pjstar.com. Follow him on Twitter @JournoBuedel.