Local News

Growing Great Pumpkin Can Mean Big Bucks

Posted October 12, 1996 12:00 a.m. EDT

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

The World Pumpkin Conference(WPC) awarded a whopping cash prize -- 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 more than 1000 pounds.

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

In Raleigh, 10-year-old Andrea Benton of Pink Hill also nurtured a pumpkin to championship size. She won the 11th annual Great Pumpkin Contest at the State Farmers' Market. Her entry strained the scales at 294 1/2 pounds and earned her a $400 cash prize.

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

For those who raise such pumpkins big-time, there's also the necessity to use stud pumpkin seeds. These are the seeds from past winners, and can cost as much as $20 each. Pumpkins produce about 500 to 700 seeds each. National contest winners are divvied up, with 30 seeds going back to the grower, and the balance sold to members of the World Pumpkin Confederation (membership: $15 per year).

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

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

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

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

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

Craven lavishes manure tea and water-soluble fertilizer on his pumpkins. He also protects them from wind, heat and cold. He calculates it costs him $200 per pumpkin to get them to meet his -- and the judge's -- standards. And his patch typically has about 20 entries fattening up.

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

Last year, one of Craven's neighbors, Steve Hoult, managed to grow a 1,010-pound pumpkin. It was weighed on a certified scale while still in the garden.

Hoult cut the mighty pumpkin's stem, brought over a two-wheel trailer and 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 pumpkin turn 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 couple hundred pies.

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