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Growing Great Pumpkin Can Mean Big Bucks

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PUMPKIN PATCH, USA — Charlie Brown and his"Peanuts" comic strip friends aren't the only ones who revere the GreatPumpkin. Each year, thousands of other Americans plant pumpkin seedhoping to grow the world's biggest specimen -- or to at least win a localor state contest. And the Autumnal title may well be coupled with cash.

The World Pumpkin Conference(WPC) awarded a whopping cashprize -- but it went for a whopping big pumpkin. The organization had put$50,000 on the table for anyone who could raise a pumpkin weighing morethan 1000 pounds.

Winners of the "weigh-off" held Oct. 4 in Clarence, N.Y., were Nathanand Paula Zehr. Their entry weighed 1,061 pounds. It was the secondconsecutive year the Zehrs won but this year was a special triumph.Zealous growers have figured out how to coddle pumpkins to very substantialsizes, but this was the first time anyone had run the scale's needle overthe half-ton mark. Previously, the largest pumpkin weighed was 836pounds, in the 1993 contest.

In Raleigh, 10-year-old Andrea Benton of Pink Hill also nurtured apumpkin to championship size. She won the 11th annual Great PumpkinContest at the State Farmers' Market. Her entry strained the scales at294 1/2 pounds and earned her a $400 cash prize.

As both the Zehrs and Andrea could tell you, growing such producerequires more than dropping a seed in the ground. At the least, suchchampions require constant fussing -- plenty of water on a regular basis,pruning of other fruits on the stem to allow one to prosper, lots offertilizer and even careful handling (literally) to transport it to thecontest site.

For those who raise such pumpkins big-time, there's also thenecessity to use stud pumpkin seeds. These are the seeds from pastwinners, and can cost as much as $20 each. Pumpkins produce about 500 to700 seeds each. National contest winners are divvied up, with 30 seedsgoing back to the grower, and the balance sold to members of the WorldPumpkin Confederation (membership: $15 per year).

Soil must be analyzed before planting, and amended if necessary. Someserious growers keep daily logs of watering, weather, spraying, andfertilizing.

Developing a thick skin is even more important for pumpkins than it isfor people. Thin rinds split more easily. And a split pumpkin, no matterhow big it is, can't be entered in the national contest.

Disease is an ever-present worry. Sometimes a candidate that seemeddestined to fame and fortune self-destructs right in the garden, which iswhy dedicated contestants nurture several vines at a time.

Deterring vandals can be another challenge. Sometimes a grower's cropfalls to a random act of vandalism. But in a horticultural variation of"We know where you live," known contest winners arevandalized regularly, according to Norman Craven of Stouffville, Ontario,

"It's not members of the WPC," Craven says. "It's members from otherpumpkin groups. It's plain jealousy."

Craven lavishes manure tea and water-soluble fertilizer on hispumpkins. He also protects them from wind, heat and cold. He calculatesit costs him $200 per pumpkin to get them to meet his -- and thejudge's -- standards. And his patch typically has about 20 entriesfattening up.

Sometimes, for all the effort, one fatal move ends the dream.

Last year, one of Craven's neighbors, Steve Hoult, managed to grow a1,010-pound pumpkin. It was weighed on a certified scale while still inthe garden.

Hoult cut the mighty pumpkin's stem, brought over a two-wheel trailerand loaded the pumpkin. But its trip to the Weigh-Off was short-lived.As Hoult backed up, the trailer's leveling legs got stuck in the dirt.

As he watched, unbelieving, in his rear-view mirror, he saw the pumpkinturn a somersault and land on the ground, a 10-inch gash in its ribs.

At that point, Hoult had nothing more than the makings of a couplehundred pies.

As for the Zehrs, dedicated pumpkin growers that they are, they maywell be using their $50,000 winnings to stock up on even more stud pumpkinseed. After all, October 1997, will be here before long....

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