The Battle of the Giant Pumpkins

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The Battle of the Giant Pumpkins

Ron Wallace grows giant pumpkins. Not large pumpkins — anyone can do that — but fairy-tale pumpkins, the kind of pumpkins that make Cinderella’s carriage seem not just plausible but reasonable — what else are you going to do with something that size? Last year, he grew the biggest pumpkin of his career, which also happened to be the biggest pumpkin in North American history, weighing in at a near-mythological 2,230.5 pounds.

Ron Wallace doesn’t hold the world record, though, or at least, he doesn’t yet. That belongs to Beni Meier, a Swiss accountant, whose 2,323.7-pounder captured the title in 2014. So far, no one has beaten it.

ron wallace.jpg Photo courtesy of Ron Wallace

A Rhode Island country club manager by day, Wallace, 51, is a legend in the world of mammoth produce: he was the first to break the 1,500-pound barrier, in 2006. In 2012, be smashed the 2,000-pound ceiling. (Depending on your frame of reference, 2,000 pounds is also the weight of a U-Haul, or an adult buffalo.) “I’m a very competitive person, I have been my whole life,”

Wallace tells me by phone from the club. “And growing the pumpkins gave me another channel to compete on a world level with people.” And there are people: 37-year- old Andy Wolf, president of the Great Pumpkin Commonwealth (by day: health department inspector), estimates there are about 2,000 of them worldwide, growing not just giant pumpkins, but also enormous tomatoes (current record: 8.41 pounds) and monstrous watermelons (350.5 pounds), outsized cabbages, cantaloupes, long gourds, parsnips, carrots. If it is possible to grow it, then there is someone trying to grow it bigger.

They are, in general, a motley bunch: doctors, engineers, truck drivers, carpenters. Chad New, 32, president of the Rocky Mountain Giant Vegetable Growers and a second-year grower, is a union electrician who also runs a line of reptile-focused pet stores. He tells me about another member who does “something high up” at Tesla. Wallace started growing pumpkins because his dad did it. New got into giants because he likes things that are “strange, weird, and unusual.” He used to do battle bots. Now he does pumpkins, though he held the Colorado State tomato record for a few weeks last summer. They are united by their drive to win — and their commitment to work. At peak season, Wallace says, he puts in 40 hours a week on the pumpkins: weeding, watering, fertilizing, misting, tending to cracks.

11998889_1673111316253923_125085383149582062_n.jpg Photo courtesy of Colorado Giants

Susan Warren, whose book, Backyard Giants: The Passionate, Heartbreaking, and Glorious Quest to Grow the Biggest Pumpkin Ever follows a core group of competitors — including
Wallace — through a particularly high-stakes growing season, traces the roots of competitive vegetable gardening back to the English country fairs of the 19th century, though it’s clear our collective fascination with surreally prolific produce dates back significantly farther. (A 1720 dispatch from New England to the Royal Society in London includes, among other agricultural updates, a long description of an unusually girthy pumpkin stalk.) “It kind of morphed,” Warren explains, shifting from “the biggest, most beautiful vegetable, to just the biggest.”

But formal, in-person competitions — the blue-ribbon kind — are only part of the story, says Emily Pawley, a history professor at Dickinson College who specializes in 19th century agricultural history: the competitions also raged in the 19th century agricultural journals. “You’ll read an article and it’ll have a headline: ‘Extraordinary Strawberry!’” she says. Articles like that inspired retaliation from other growers, in other places, with even more extraordinary
strawberries. There may be an “Extraordinary Strawberry!” in Rochester, but you should see the one we’ve got in Boston. “There’s a lot of competition happening through text, and not
necessarily in exhibition spaces,” she tells me.

13350416_1213802901966058_2871706362982695994_o.jpg Photo courtesy of Rocky Mountain Giant Vegetable Growers

Historically, there was nothing particularly special about giant pumpkins. People were growing them, sure, Pawley tells me, but in the mid-19th century, “there are so many other monstrous things that pumpkins don’t really stand out.” Wolf, for one, is quick to acknowledge that other giants “have their allure” — he’s been in the pumpkin game for nearly two decades, but he can still appreciate the majesty of a 10-food long gourd, or an 8-pound tomato. And yet, nearly everyone I talked to for this story wants to talk about pumpkins; Pumpkins, comically large and largely useless, have become the star of the North American giant produce scene.

William Warnock, a farmer and machinist from Ontario, wasn’t the first to grow a giant pumpkin in North America. (That honor, improbably, may go to transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau.) But he was the first to win a world record for it: at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago, Warnock’s set the first known record for big pumpkins, with a 365 pound behemoth. At the Paris World’s Fair seven years later, he beat his own record with a 400 pounder. And at the St. Louis World’s fair in 1903. Warnock outdid himself again: weighing in at 403 pound pumpkin, that pumpkin would hold the world record for more than 70 years.

If William Warnock is the grandfather of giant pumpkins, Howard Dill is the king. As kid in
Nova Scotia, Dill grew up around giants; for years, his father had been growing pumpkins from the Warnock’s original record-setting seeds. But Dill, now an avid pumpkin breeder, wanted bigger. He got it: by crossing the Warnock seeds with one of his father’s other varieties, he created “Dill’s Atlantic Giant.” He’d go onto win the world record (four years in a row), but he’d also spawn generations of prizewinners — even now, top growers are using the seeds of its descendants.

By contemporary competitive standards, Dill’s own pumpkins look quaint, even dainty. In 1981, he made it to the Guinness Book of World records for a 493.5 pounder. The record today is more than four times that. The question now is not if we’re going to see 2,500; it’s who’s going to grow it, and when.

It used to be that if you wanted to grow big, you’d hand-write a letter to a fellow extreme grower and ask for some seeds, or some advice, and maybe they’d write you back, and maybe they wouldn’t. “It was very secretive back then,” Wallace says. “The people who were competing and having success would not tell you anything.”

Arguably, the biggest agricultural advance since then is the Internet, at least when it comes to
growing giants. “You know the website” Wallace asks. “It really blew the
doors off the hobby.” I do know If you are even a little bit interested in giant produce, all roads lead to The site is a virtual a clearinghouse of giant fruit and vegetable intel. There are message boards and seed swaps; People keep growing diaries (“I am getting worried that a ten gallon container won’t be big enough to hold this carrot” “Cucumber growing tip scorched by the fierce sun on Tues. Should have foreseen this”). If you are worried your pumpkin might explode — a valid concern — BigPumpkins is one of the only places in the world you’ll find people who understand. Between the message boards and in-person growing clubs, Wallace says the secrets are gone. “I mean, everyone might have a mixture or something they like to use, but there’s nothing nobody’s using that makes them win every year.” He is quick to clarify: that’s a good thing.

2014WinnerJohnHawkley-1-300dpi.jpg Photo courtesy of Half Moon Bay Art and Pumpkin Festival

Giant produce is an individual mission, but it’s also a team sport, where the team is everyone
playing. Extreme gardeners, Wallace says, “can grow more pounds per square foot than anybody in the world. And that happened because of thousands and thousands of people networking, making genetics better, making technique and pruning better, working together using organic biology.” As competitive as they are — and they are a notoriously intense crowd — growers are all participating in the same higher calling: to make big things bigger.

Why pumpkins, though? Why not cantaloupes, or cabbages, both of which are also grown
competitively (everything is grown competitively)? “Pumpkins will always be the big money
thing,” Wallace assures me. Yes, there is some money in watermelons, he says, but “you’re not going to see a 2000 pound watermelon.” There is a pragmatic element to this: pumpkins grow astoundingly, freakishly fast. They’re capable of putting on 30 to 50 pounds a day at peak season, which makes them extremely satisfying to grow, and also weirdly animate, in a sci-fi sort of way. But our collective passion for pumpkins is also emotional. “Everybody’s heard stories of the Great Pumpkin, since they were kids,” Wallace says. “There’s a love in this world for pumpkins. Pumpkins put a smile on everybody’s face, always.”

You grow giant pumpkins for the glory, not the cash, but if you’re looking to grow a profit, pumpkins are where the money is. For the world’s first two thousand pounder, Wallace estimates he won “ten or fifteen thousand” from the Topsfield Fair (the real money, he tells me, is in California — this year at the Half Moon Bay Art and Pumpkin Festival, there’s $30,000 at stake). Giant pumpkins have aftermarket value, too: growers will sell them to casinos, or grocery stores. It’s nice, the money, Wallace says, but it’s not why growers are in the game. “I’d still compete if they just gave you a ribbon,” he says.

Chad New knows he isn’t going to break any world records this year, or maybe ever: the really big stuff is coming out milder climates. Alaska. The Pacific Northwest. Nova Scotia. New England. “We can’t compete with somebody like Ron Wallace,” he tells me cheerfully. Still, he says, for Denver, his prospects this year are looking good— when we talk, in mid-August, his pumpkin is 900 pounds with 50 growing days to go, which puts him on track for the Colorado State record. “But a lot can go wrong in 50 days,” he laughs. The list of potential disasters includes, but is not limited to: pests (squash vine borers are very detrimental to pumpkins,” he says, leading me on an unfortunate Google image search), diseases, powdery mildews, more pests, hale (a hazard of Colorado’s sub-optimal growing weather), too much sun, too much water, not enough sun, not enough water, and birds. Growing a giant, Warren observes, “is like pushing a thoroughbred to the breaking point.” There is always a risk of pushing too far.

62068_157881020891590_4094270_n.jpg Photo courtesy of Rocky Mountain Giant Vegetable Growers

Growers keep getting better. Pumpkins keep getting bigger. The question now is: for how long? “There’s gotta be a ceiling or a limit,” Wallace says. He worries advances in pumpkin genetics are slowing down. “There’s really no dissimilar lines out there now,” he explains. “Back when we were building the hobby, you’d take one line and cross it with another line and take a chance on getting a hybrid bigger.” Now, he says, growers are all cultivating the same few seeds. And while growing techniques keep improving, it’s not clear they can improve forever. In an ideal world, pumpkins could theoretically grow up to 20,000 pounds — at least according to a model by researchers at Georgia Institute of Technology. In the real world, though, Wallace feels the limit approaching. “I certainly know we can get to 2,500 pounds. That’s going to happen within a year or two. Can we get to 3,000 pounds?” he asks. “I don’t know. Maybe.”

What if we can’t, though? “I don’t want to think about it,” Wallace tells me. He’s still optimistic
there are amazing pumpkins to come. “Even when you get to the top, there are enough people growing now that with the right area of the country, and the right weather, someone’s going to do something special,” So maybe the days of breaking world record by one or two hundred pounds are winding down. “There’s still exciting times down the road,” Wallace promises. “We’ve got a shot. I guess that’s all you can ask for.”