Six months ago, four members of the St. Croix Growers Association (SCGA) met in Chris Stevens’ garage in New Richmond and began an agricultural odyssey they each hoped would reward them with a world record pumpkin. As they sorted through a collection of tiny envelopes filled with seeds labeled with names like Wallace, Ailts, Meier, Werner and Stevens, they recounted stories of giants past and selected the seeds they thought would give them the best chance to fulfill their dream.
The season has come and gone and with it the fates of each of the four growers have been determined. The patch of Stevens and fellow grower, John Hopkins, a new patch filled with promise, fell victim to torrential rains and poor drainage early on and could not recover in time to realize its full potential. The other patch, shared by growers Lorelee Zywiec and Peter Midthun, thrived due to their diligent care and expert advice graciously provided by Stevens. Their patch eventually saw seven giants emerge from the sea of elephant ear sized leaves, of which the two largest would be destined for Stillwater Harvest Festival, one of the world’s most competitive weigh offs.
Harvesting a giant
As the sun began to set, only two giants remained to be harvested. A small group of friends and fellow growers including SCGA president Joe Ailts and former world record holder Chris Stevens had assembled at the Zywiec/Midthun farm in Deer Park to help with the harvest. There had been some debate right up to that morning whether to harvest the giants Friday night or wait until early Saturday morning to cut the vines. Even with several heavy frosts already in the books, a giant pumpkin can still add as many as five pounds a day in water gain alone. The Stillwater weigh off is renown for stiff competition and very big pumpkins, so a few pounds could spell the difference between a record and the $5,000 first-place prize and second place.
As Midthun and Stevens wrestled to get the straps of the harness positioned correctly around the giant pumpkin, there was a sense of both anticipation and anxiety hanging in the damp evening air. It would be a small disaster to have chosen the right seed, pollinated it with the right genetics, have it weather heavy rains and summer storms, and outwit pests only to fumble the pumpkin while trying to load it onto the trailer. Being a bit superstitious and cautious seemed appropriate having gotten this far and with Halloween just around the haunted corner.
With the harness securely positioned and a digital scale in place, neighbor Mark Borgstrom eased the bucket of his tractor up just enough to float the monster above the earth as flickering red digits confirmed the dream was within reach.
Harvesting a pumpkin more than 18 feet in circumference takes a plan and the right tools to ensure it is protected throughout the process. At this point in the season these giants represent a sizeable investment both financially and emotionally. After a couple false starts indicated the chain attached to the tractor’s bucket needed to be lengthened and the straps readjusted more evenly surrounding the pumpkin, Borgstrom eased the bucket back and slowly hoisted the yellow giant up over the edge of the trailer and gently set it back down safely on its designated pallet just ahead of the trailer’s wheels. A half hour and some finagling of the pallets later, Zywiec’s giant, glowing red in the trailer’s taillights, was set in place just behind its fellow giant on the end of the trailer. There was a collective sigh of relief followed by a toast. Next stop: Stillwater.
The weigh off
Saturday morning found a heavy fog blanketing the Stillwater riverfront punctured only by the white tips of Harvest Festival tents, a scene befitting the magic about to unfold. Traffic crossing the bridge began to thicken as drivers slowed down trying to make sense of the army of giant orange and yellow pumpkins emerging from the fog. The Stillwater Harvest Festival has been recognized by the Great Pumpkin Commonwealth (GPC) since 2005. Each year the event has grown both in the number of entries and in public popularity. Harvest Festival weekend includes a variety of family friendly events including kids games, a chili cook off, pie eating contest, giant pumpkin boat race, haunted cave tours, street dance and live music. But the main draw are the giant pumpkins, many weighing more than 1,500 pounds. Maybe the most popular festival event is the ever popular giant pumpkin drop at 5 p.m. each day.
All the local legends were there from both sides of the St. Croix River, growers of monster jack-o’-lanterns, state and world record holders, pioneers sharing from their years of experience with the next generation of dreamers.
“We’ve got more pumpkins here than we’ve ever had, more size here than we’ve ever had. It’s shaping up to be our biggest event ever. This is going to be an incredible day,” predicted event coordinator Joe Ailts of Deer Park. “Our goal was to create the prettiest weigh off in the entire world right here along the banks of the St. Croix River with the beautiful bluffs behind us.”
Ailts explained how each pumpkin is carefully measured by the judges prior to being weighed. That information is entered into an extensive database, which also includes a particular pumpkin’s genetic heritage. The information is maintained by the GPC, the governing body that officially certifies weigh offs around the world. The measurements also determine the order in which the giants will be weighed moving from smallest to largest.
The Stillwater weigh off is both beauty and beast when you take into account it was attempting to become the top weigh off site in history based on the average weight of the top 10 pumpkins weighed. The closest competition for the title would come from the Ohio Valley Giant Pumpkin Growers weigh off being held simultaneously in Canfield, Ohio.
“We had a couple of pumpkins show up that we didn’t know were coming that are going to be in that 1,500 to 1,600 pound range so it’s going to be bloodbath in the top 10 today. We’ll easily have the biggest top 10 we’ve ever had for size. There’s going to be some records. The other weigh off we are competing with for that title takes place in Ohio today as well, so we’ll know by the end of the day who’s grown the biggest giants,” said former world record holder Stevens.
One of those surprise entries, a pumpkin by growers Toni Howell and Rick Jolivette of Stoughton, got the crowd going when it tipped the scale at 1,756 pounds, some 20 percent heavier than its dimensional weight. The Howard Dill Award for prettiest pumpkin went to Shannon Engel for a brilliant orange giant that weighed in at 1,373.5 pounds. Howard Dill is widely acknowledged as the founder of the Atlantic Giant strain of giant pumpkin genetics responsible for the era of giant pumpkins.
As the pumpkin weighing crew worked up a sweat maneuvering big pumpkin after big pumpkin up to the scale, the crowd continued to grow in anticipation of seeing a new world record.
It was anybody’s game heading into the final five giants.
Even given the digital preview the night before, Zywiec and Midthun stayed true to form resisting any temptation to make predictions about where their giants might finish. As the crew wrangled pallet trucks loaded with the massive finalists back and forth to the scale, Zywiec relinquished her position in front of the scale as official photographer and moved over to accompany her entry to the scale. Almost as if her giant wanted to prolong its moment in the spotlight, the crew struggled to release it from the harness finally freeing the rope from underneath allowing it to settle on the scale. Zywiec watched intently as the digital read out bounced up and down until settling at 1,781 pounds, the heaviest pumpkin to that point in the competition. With that weight, Zywiec earned entry into several coveted clubs; the 1,600-Pound Club for having grown a giant weighing 1,600 pounds or better and the 4,500-Pound Club for having grown three pumpkins in the same season having totaled more than 4,500 pounds.
“The big win in giant pumpkin growing is the many friendships I have made around the world, the great camaraderie of the sport and the continuing excitement that grows along with each pumpkin. Joining a club like the St. Croix Grower’s Association (SCGA) has many immeasurable member benefits. I challenge each of you to grow a GIANT,” said Zywiec.
Not necessarily a fan of the spotlight, Midthun had laid low all afternoon patiently waiting for his giant ‘s turn on the scale. Since the patch tour back in August when his giant had a dimensional weight of better than 1,300 pounds, Midthun liked his chances to reach 1,700 pounds, maybe even qualifying for the elite 1,800-Pound Club. At long last the moment was at hand. His giant squarely on the scale, he watched as the read out teased up and down until freezing at 1,832.5 pounds, a new personal best and with it bragging rights in the patch he shares with Zywiec.
“Reaching 1,800 pounds was huge. I’ve been growing giant pumpkins for three years now and I’ve learned to listen. Whatever other folks are doing better than you, ask them questions and learn from them. Some of the best growers are right here in New Richmond. So it’s a great place to start,” said Midthun.
Following the weigh off, Midthun’s giant will be on display at Family Fresh Market in New Richmond.
Only the giant grown by Minnesotan Scott Steil stood between Midthun and the $5,000 first place prize for this year’s biggest pumpkin. But it wasn’t to be as Steil’s giant tipped the scale at 1,873 pounds, taking first place and setting a new Minnesota state record in the process.
Midthun’s and Steil’s pumpkins were the two biggest pumpkins ever weighed at the Stillwater event. In all, 39 giant pumpkins were weighed at Stillwater with the top 10 averaging 1,663.5 pounds. It was Stillwater’s largest number ever and good for second place behind the GPC weigh off in Ohio where they averaged more than 1,700 pounds.
It was a glorious day filled with good natured competition, sincere camaraderie, and most of all pumpkins large enough to inspire any imagination.
For more information about growing giant pumpkins visit the St. Croix Growers Association website at stcroixgrowers.org.
This is the final installment of a series following members of the St. Croix Growers Association through the growing season as they nurture giant pumpkins. Read the entire series online at newrichmond-news.com/tags/giant-pumpkins.