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Prize pumpkins have tripled in size in the past three decades. Tim Parks, of the Ohio Valley growers club, harvests his 2010 contender. (Greg Ruffing / Redux)

The Great Pumpkin

Competitive vegetable growers are closing in on an elusive goal—the one ton squash

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Today, all the top growers use soil organisms, often from Anderson’s company or Holland’s Land O’Giants, a Sumner, Washington, company run by grower Joel Holland. Carolyn Scagel, a plant physiologist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Corvallis, Oregon, says Azospirillum and mycorrhizae can increase fertilizer efficiency and decrease plants’ susceptibility to pathogens, but only if the added strains are compatible with the plant and soil conditions. Whether generic mycorrhizae in commercial products help Ohio’s well-fertilized gardens is anyone’s guess. The growers say their pumpkins aren’t getting any smaller.

All of which raises the question of just how much larger they can get. “Nobody knows what the limit is going to be,” says Andres, of the New York Botanical Garden. In fact, mechanical engineer David Hu and colleagues at the Georgia Institute of Technology have been investigating pumpkin growth. A world-record strawberry or tomato weighs about ten times the average, they found. By contrast, giant pumpkins weigh 100 times the average. And Hu thinks they can get even bigger. To figure out how much bigger, he and his colleagues placed pumpkins of various sizes in a vise-like instrument and subjected the fruits to pressure until they cracked. These force measurements led them to estimate just how big a pumpkin might get in a perfect world. The answer: 20,000 pounds. Of course, real pumpkins with their warts, scars and dimples are unlikely to ever come close to geometrical perfection. A 1,000-pound pumpkin may have a wall that’s 16 inches thick on one side and one inch on the other, a recipe for disaster, or at least a very large pumpkin pie.

By early September, the top pumpkins have crossed the 1,500-pound threshold, and growers grow tight-lipped. Yet word about the contenders always seems to get out, spreading like a vine from Nova Scotia to Washington State. In 2010, record temperatures pushed the focus of the competition to latitudes normally too far north to produce winners. “There’s probably at least six or seven that have a chance to break the world record,” Werner told me one evening, sharing rumors about giants in Michigan and New Hampshire he’d picked up at BigPumpkins.com, the go-to spot for pumpkin gossip. “Tim Parks has a decent one,” he noted, quickly adding, “that’s not information that he wants anybody to know.”

On the day before the Canfield weigh-off last October, a cold front blew in from the north, drenching much of the East in heavy rains and causing the first tawny leaves of autumn to fall. I got to Werner’s farm in the late afternoon in time to watch him and his son Matt hoist their largest pumpkin—grown from that promising “1421 Stelts” seed—onto a trailer.

The knee-high jungle I’d seen in the summer now had a tattered look about it. Leaves were yellowing and fraying. In the last month, pumpkins put on fewer than five pounds per day, and growers worry about their prize remaining intact until the weigh-off. It’s at this point that some of the worst mishaps occur, such as the discovery of a soft spot on the pumpkin’s bottom or a miscalculation during loading.

For Werner, this was the moment of truth—a scale mounted to fork tines of his tractor would tell him what he had. The weights he’d been estimating all season could be off by 25 percent, and many a promising pumpkin has “gone light.” Matt pulled a lever on the tractor, and the fork rose, pulling taut the eight straps that encircled the pumpkin. Quinn Werner glanced down at the digital readout. “Not a world record,” he muttered. The pumpkin had gone light.

That didn’t mean he wasn’t going to make the other growers sweat a little. He wrapped the 1,634-pound fruit with water-soaked towels and cellophane, to minimize evaporation, and taped a bag of water to the freshly cut stem. “If anyone asks, I’ll say it’s my secret juice,” he joked.

To the west, in New Richmond, Wisconsin, a 33-year-old grower named Chris Stevens had used a flower from a 1421 Stelts to pollinate a plant from New Hampshire. Stevens estimated the fruit at 1,541 pounds, but at the 2010 Stillwater Harvest Fest, in Minnesota, it came in at 1,810.5 pounds, a new world record. A Michigan grower came in second. Even South Dakota made the top five.

With climate change, the Great Pumpkin Belt could widen, giving the Ohio Valley stiffer competition from the north, says Andres. Stevens is doubtful that such northerly states are going to overtake Ohio Valley’s lead any time soon. “That’s the number-one weigh-off in the world,” he said reverently. “They have a good chance of holding onto it.”

At the Canfield weigh-off, Tim Parks grabbed a microphone and addressed the audience: “It’s a deep-rooted tradition—gardening in our society—and this is the max of it!”

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