The winning pumpkin at the Elk Grove Giant Pumpkin Festival this year wasn’t big and round, but wide and flat, leading judges to nickname it “The Flying Saucer.”
As a forklift lowered the massive pumpkin onto the scale at Elk Grove Regional Park on Saturday, audiences looked on from rows of hay bales in anticipation, wondering if it would beat the last monster vegetable, which weighed in at 1,584 pounds. Grower Tim Mathison watched the scale as its digits climbed, eventually landing at an astounding 1,806 pounds.
Why do we do it? I don’t know; it’s ridiculous. But the festival brings everybody together to learn about the tradition of giant vegetable growing, which is a very old sport … and it’s a lot of fun.
Rob Globus, two-time past winner of the competition
Mathison, of Napa, was one of about 50 big pumpkin growers to haul their heaviest crops to the annual weigh-in, where $35,000 in prize money is distributed to top placers. The contestants arrived from all over Northern California to present their harvests, but no one came close to beating the current national record for heaviest pumpkin – 2,154 pounds.
The giant pumpkin competition is part of a two-day event, which draws about 40,000 people each year. The weigh-in is the centerpiece of the outdoor event, but carnival rides, a pumpkin pie eating contest, a pumpkin-boat regatta and dozens of kids’ activities also contribute to the festive mood. This year’s theme was superheroes.
“We look forward to this festival all year,” said John Phair of Elk Grove, whose son Jack, 6, helped him grow a 182-pound pumpkin for the contest. “Farming with me helps him learn science, and also patience.”
Most of the pumpkins entered in Saturday’s contest were grown in about 90 days, sometimes growing as fast as 30 pounds per day, said Brian Myers, chairman of the California Pumpkin Growers Association. There were about half as many pumpkins entered this year than in previous years, largely due to what farmers said were overly hot and suboptimal growing conditions.
Most farmers did not harvest their giant pumpkins until last night, hoping to gain as much weight as possible. It’s a trick of timing, though – a pumpkin left on the stalk too long may start to wilt.
Once on site, pumpkins were sorted into approximate size categories and forklifted to the scale in small-to-large order. A moving crew fitted each pumpkin with leveraging straps so judges could examine the entries for cracks and holes that might disqualify them.
Growing the biggest pumpkin takes a lot of time and a bit of creativity, said Rob Globus, two-time past winner of the competition. On his plot in Walnut Grove, Globus grows six to seven oversized pumpkins at a time – a job he said takes about 55 hours per week. While the prize money and the bragging rights are nice payoffs, he said most of the big pumpkin enthusiasts just grow for the joy of it.
“Why do we do it? I don’t know; it’s ridiculous,” he said. “But the festival brings everybody together to learn about the tradition of giant vegetable growing, which is a very old sport … and it’s a lot of fun.”
For 14-year-old Audrey Warren, the competition is more than just an outing, it’s a way to practice what she hopes will be her future trade. Audrey, of Auburn, has been entering the Future Farmers competition – a subset of the giant pumpkin weigh-in – since she was 3 years old, and took the top prize this year with an 825-pound pumpkin.
She hopes eventually to go to school for horticulture, she said. Working on giant pumpkins has already given her a taste of real-world farming.
“The planting is so meticulous – it’s got to be pointing in the right direction, at the right depth, with the right supplements,” she said. “It’s like a baby – it’s a lot of work.”
Mathison, who took home more than $12,000 for his winning pumpkin, said the most important part of Saturday’s event was sharing it with daughter Tara, 28, who uses a wheelchair and has a neurodevelopmental disorder called Rett syndrome. She was with him almost every night as he tended to his patch, he said.
He purchased the unique seed from which he grew the pumpkin from the Make-a-Wish Foundation, a charity that arranges joyful experiences for children with life-threatening conditions.
“She knows what it’s all about,” he said. “It makes her really happy.”
Elk Grove Giant Pumpkin Festival
Where: Elk Grove Regional Park, 9950 Elk Grove Florin Road, Elk Grove
When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. through Sunday