Early Saturday morning, tons of humongous pumpkins will be rolling off trucks at Elk Grove Regional Park.
Each gigantic gourd will need help from forklifts and guiding hands as it finds its way to the scale. Then, months of nurturing and anticipation will culminate in a number – and maybe a big payday.
It’s the Elk Grove Giant Pumpkin Festival, a local farm-to-porch party commemorating everybody’s favorite hard-shell squash.
Opening October’s wild rush of pumpkin mania, Elk Grove’s salute to oversized pumpkins keeps growing. About 45,000 patrons attended the two-day festival last year.
This weekend’s 22nd annual celebration goes way beyond the opening weigh-off, featuring giant pumpkins pushing close to the 1-ton mark.
“The Greatest Pumpkin Show on Earth,” this year’s theme, will play off the circus atmosphere that surrounds the festival including the gravity-defying Pumpkin Regatta and the jaw-dropping pie-eating world championships featuring pro eater Joey Chestnut defending his title. Keeping with the theme, an actual circus troupe will perform stunts and entertain guests.
“It will be bigger and better – it’s a circus!” promised Jenna Brinkman of the Cosumnes Community Services Division Parks and Recreation Department, the festival’s host. “We’re into large gourds and festivals.”
Last year, about 30 pumpkins arrived at dawn to prepare for the weigh-off.
“We really don’t know until that morning how many will show up,” Brinkman said. “It depends on growing conditions and changes from year to year. The drought and water restrictions can have an impact.”
Despite the drought, the festival record – 1,928 pounds – was set in 2014 and grown by Rob Globus of Walnut Grove. Last year’s topper weighed 1,806 pounds, grown by Napa’s Tim Mathison, a former world record holder. The winner receives $7 a pound.
“This summer has been problematic,” said Globus, who plans to enter Saturday’s contest. “We haven’t had a lot of 60-degree nights; it’s been cooler. The vines grow more at night than during the day and they like it warm.”
Growing a winner has become harder, he noted. “You have to invest a lot of time to do it right.
“When I started in 2010, the world record was only about 1,600 pounds. Now it’s 2,323 (grown in Switzerland),” Globus said. “It shows the increased popularity of growing giant pumpkins.”
Local growers such as Globus helped inspire the Giant Pumpkin Festival.
“We started this contest back in 1994 as a pumpkin weigh-off at a small harvest festival,” Brinkman said. “At that time, there were not a lot of weigh-off locations in Northern California. We did this for the convenience of our local growers.”
The party surrounding the pumpkins escalated from there, with family entertainment, vendors, food and more. New this year, Velocity Circus will perform four 25-minute shows Saturday on the festival’s main stage.
Guaranteed to draw a crowd Sunday will be the third World Pumpkin Pie Eating Championships with professional gobblers from the Major League Eating circuit vying for their own record-breaking moment.
“It’s very similar to Nathan’s Famous hot dog eating contest,” Brinkman said. “They have eight minutes to eat 20 pounds of pie.”
That’s the world record – 20 pounds, 13 ounces – set by Matt Stonie in 2014 at the festival. Chestnut, currently ranked No. 1 among pro eaters, won the 2015 pumpkin pie title with 18 pounds, 4 ounces.
For folks who would rather savor their pumpkin than woof it down, chefs will offer pumpkin cooking demonstrations. Home cooks will compete in a recipe contest.
Artists of all ages will paint pictures of pumpkins for an Art Walk gallery. Festival participants do some carving, too. Among the competitions are a Pumpkin Derby, featuring cars made out of pumpkins, and the 10th annual Pumpkin Regatta.
That’s what happens to the losing pumpkins, Brinkman explained. While the top three pumpkins from the weigh-off get a place of honor, the other giants are carved into boats.
“Growers usually enter the boat race, too,” Brinkman said. “They have to go across the pond and back. Last year, only three made it without tipping over. It’s pretty funny to watch.”
22nd annual Giant Pumpkin Festival
Where: Elk Grove Regional Park, 9950 Elk Grove-Florin Road, Elk Grove
When: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, Oct. 1 and 2
Admission: Free; parking, $10
Details: 916-405-5600, www.yourcsd.com
▪ Pumpkin weigh-off, 9 a.m. Saturday, Oct. 1
▪ Pumpkin Regatta, Noon Sunday, Oct. 2
▪ Major League Eating’s World Pumpkin Pie Eating Championships, 1:30 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 2