A growing obsession: New Richmond fertile with giant pumpkin growers
A New Richmond man and former giant pumpkin world record holder placed first at last weekend’s Stillwater Harvest Fest with a pumpkin weighing in at 1,783.5 pounds. He edged his closest competitor by just four pounds.
Chris Stevens put New Richmond on the map in world-class giant pumpkin growers in 2010 when he broke the world record with a 1,810.5-pound pumpkin.
These days, Stevens isn’t the only New Richmond man growing world-class pumpkins. A tight-knit community of growers has emerged, with New Richmond residents now holding eight of the top 10 spots on the Wisconsin’s all-time leaderboard for biggest pumpkins grown in the state.
Stevens’ pumpkin this year was the second largest ever grown in Wisconsin, behind only his world-record pumpkin from 2010. In fact, five of the top 10 Wisconsin pumpkins all time have come from Stevens’ garden.
John Hopkins, of New Richmond, owns No. 3 and No. 10 on the list, and Pete Midthun, who has been growing for just four years, broke into the top 10 last weekend with a 1,546-pound pumpkin to claim No. 8.
This year’s crop
With extreme weather marring the growing season, Stevens didn’t think 2013 would be a good year for giant pumpkins in New Richmond.
“This year we were up and down and obviously a cold late start,” Stevens said. “The killer this year, in my opinion, was a streak at the end of July in the 60s for a week, and that really hurt the growth of the pumpkins.”
The cold late start forced Stevens to scrap some of his bigger pumpkins in mid-May. The pumpkin that turned out to be the 1,783.5-pound giant was too small at that time to be ruined by the cold temperatures.
In 2011, Stevens’ record was bested by a Canadian pumpkin. In 2012, the record went over a ton as a Rhode Island pumpkin weighed in at 2,009 pounds. Last weekend, that mark was outdone by a pumpkin in Napa, Calif., that weighed in at 2,032 pounds.
Stevens has no doubts that another world record pumpkin can be grown in New Richmond.
“We just need the right weather to do it,” Stevens said.
Stevens first got into giant pumpkin growing when he visited his friend and long-distance running partner Joe Ailts, and he saw a 100-pound pumpkin in his garden, and it piqued his interest. When he visited a month later the pumpkin was 800 pounds.
“I tried it the next year and ever since we’ve been hooked,” Stevens said. “It’s like a bad disease after you get started.”
Ailts, who went to high school with Stevens, became his early pumpkin growing mentor.
“I trained him up on how to grow these things, and it’s one of those wonderful situations where the student outperforms the teacher in 2010 when he grew that world record.”
Ailts is responsible for getting several people started, including Midthun and Lorelee Zywiec, who stumbled upon Ailts garden five years ago.
“We were just driving around looking for deer tracks when we saw these big pumpkins,” Zywiec said.
The New Richmond group now includes Ailts, Stevens, Hopkins, Midthun and Zywiec, and they get together once in a while to trade secrets and share camaraderie, according to Midthun.
Ailts credits his great-grandmother Alice for his green thumb and gardening skills, which she developed in him since childhood. In 2000, he tried growing giant pumpkins for the first time after seeing the pumpkins Matt Marose grew in Elmwood the year before.
The hobby grew into something bigger as Ailts and Marose began organizing an official fall weigh-in for the monstrous pumpkins, first at Bergmann’s Greenhouse in Stillwater. A few years later the duo partnered with the Summer Tuesdays group in Stillwater to hold an official pumpkin weigh-in at Stillwater’s Harvest Fest.
Ailts’ pumpkins this year were destroyed by soil disease and a hail storm, but he served as the master of ceremonies for the Stillwater weigh-off, which this year is among the best in the world, according to Ailts.
“It looks like as it stands, we have the third-highest top-10 average of all weigh-offs across the entire world,” Ailts said. “And there are between 40 and 50 weigh-offs worldwide for giant pumpkins.”
In addition to the camaraderie and friendly competition among local growers, New Richmond also has a great climate working in its favor when it comes to growing giant pumpkins.
“We’re just a few miles north of that 45th parallel line, and that’s important because it’s halfway between the equator and the north pole,” Ailts said. “What that means is that we have the perfect balance of moderate temperature, but maximal sunlight to create environmental conditions that are optimal for growing these giant pumpkins.”
Ailts said that most world record pumpkins have been grown close to the 45th parallel, including the 2,009-pound Rhode Island pumpkin that broke Stevens’ record last year.
Ailts is confident that one of the local pumpkin growers will someday produce another world record.
“There’s no question in my mind that another world record pumpkin can come out of the New Richmond area,” Ailts said. “We’ve got the talent. We’ve got the environment. We’ve got the right seeds. It’s only a matter of time before one of us pops a new world record out here.”
Editor's note: A previous version of this article contained errors about the origination of the pumpkin weigh-off event in Stillwater and how long Chris Stevens held the world record.