How Libby's Came to Dominate the Canned Pumpkin Market

The brand is also pushing to make the festive gourd fashionable year-round

For Thanksgiving 2021, we got to the bottom of why Ocean Spray labels its cranberry sauce upside-down.

In 2022, we’re looking at another popular canned good this time of year: Libby’s 100% Pure Pumpkin.

The nearly 200-year-old brand calls itself the No. 1 canned pumpkin in the U.S., and claims to sell “enough cans to produce 90 million pumpkin pies” on average each year.

But who is Libby? And how did this canned pumpkin become the go-to for home bakers each November?

The Johnny Appleseed of pumpkins

The Libby’s brand originated circa 1835 when a veteran of the War of 1812 named Elijah Dickinson moved to Illinois with what would become known as the Dickinson pumpkin seed.

This seed produces more squash-like pumpkins with “beige exteriors [that] lack the deep ribbing of jack-o’-lantern pumpkins but … [have] thick orange flesh.”

That’s according to Libby’s, which noted the Dickinson family owned three canneries under the name Dickinson &. Co. by 1920. This included a pumpkin-packing plant in Morton, Ill., where “the weather and soil are ideal for pumpkin growing.”

That’s in part because Dickinson pumpkins “tend to be picky, needing just the right climate: 120 days of hot summer, warm nights and not too much rain.” Morton is now known as the Pumpkin Capital of the World and, according to Libby’s, the brand produces 95% of the world’s pumpkin there.

Dickinson’s son sold the canning company and its pumpkin strand in 1929 to McNeill & Libby, a Chicago-based meatpacking operation that was expanding into fruits and vegetables.

Nestle acquired McNeill & Libby in 1976. Today, the CPG giant retains only the rights to the pumpkin canning business.

The Libby’s Famous Pumpkin Pie recipe’s origins are murky.Libby’s

‘Limited and seasonal’

It’s not clear when exactly Libby’s Famous Pumpkin Pie originated.

A 2019 story in Bon Appétit said the recipe first appeared on the back of a can in 1929 after McNeill & Libby hired a recipe developer to push its canned goods.

Kristin Mitchell, brand marketing manager for Libby’s, however, said the company has “records that show in 1927 an Iowa newspaper encouraged consumers to make their honest-to-goodness ‘pumpkin pies the Libby way.’”

It’s also not clear how much pumpkin Libby’s grows, harvests and packs from the 2,200 or so acres planted each year. The brand declined to disclose the average yield per acre, but Mitchell said one pumpkin typically turns into one 15-ounce can of puree.

Stats from the U.S. Department of Agriculture shed a little more light. Illinois is indeed the top-growing pumpkin state, producing 652 million pounds of the gourd in 2021 alone. But, of course, we don’t know how much of that haul belonged to Libby’s.

We do know, however, the U.S. pumpkin market is “limited and seasonal,” as the Agricultural Marketing Resource Center puts it. Per its figures, 90% of canned pumpkin is sold between October and January. Makes sense, right?

But canned pumpkin is technically available all year. A spokesperson for retail giant Walmart confirmed as much. Libby’s, too, invites consumers to “Enjoy pumpkin year-round” as the call to action to subscribe to its email newsletter.

So we started wondering whether consumers would be open to this autumnal crop at other times of the year—and asked market research firm Morning Consult to conduct a survey.

Not surprisingly, only 4% of respondents said they currently purchase pumpkin in spring or summer. Who, after all, is drinking a pumpkin spice latte at the beach?

Nevertheless, 37% said they would be “somewhat interested”—and another 16% said they would be “very interested”—in buying pumpkin outside the fall.

It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown (and everyone else)

That clearly bodes well for Libby’s and its efforts to expand the pumpkin-buying season.

Mitchell zeroed in on three reasons to eat pumpkin year-round.

First, she pointed to the health benefits of the so-called superfood. “Because it’s rich in vitamin A [and] it’s a really good source of fiber, there’s no reason not to use it year-round,” she said.

Pumpkin can also be used as a substitute for common baking ingredients.

“You can swap in pumpkin for an egg [or] a tablespoon of oil or butter, which is of course helpful when you’re in the Thanksgiving season and maybe you didn’t buy enough of one ingredient,” she said.

Finally, there’s a market beyond humans.

“We know that pumpkin is often recommended by animal health professionals for its benefits to animal digestive systems,” she added. “Those benefits come from a combination of a high fiber content as well as the phytochemical compounds found in pumpkin itself.”

In fact, Libby’s has a new dog treat recipe coming out soon as a result.

Fall fever

Does that mean orange is once again the new black? Not necessarily.

Additional research from Morning Consult found fall is indeed Americans’ favorite season.

“There’s so much excitement around the time of year. People like the temperatures, they like the foliage, they like the feeling of shifting gears and resetting a little bit, starting school or whatever it may be,” said Emily Moquin, food and beverage analyst at Morning Consult. “Because [pumpkin is] so closely tied to that, I do think … it becomes event-like when these different foods and beverages launch.”

Our survey also found that while 40% of consumers like foods and beverages with pumpkin in them, only 15% said they love them.

“I wonder what that looked like a few years ago when there was really a tide of pumpkin products available,” Moquin added. “Nonetheless, there’s still a majority who like pumpkin products.”

And while Moquin said this sentiment is “clearly very tied to the fall season,” she conceded it extends pretty seamlessly into winter as survey results show more than 25% of respondents are purchasing pumpkin then, too.

“I feel like there’s some opportunity for at least the wintertime,” she said. “So many of the dishes that involve pumpkin are connected to these warming spices like cinnamon and ginger, and even when they’re savory those are often present, so it is just kind of a no-go, I think, for summer and spring for those reasons.”

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