People & Places

With fairs on ice, giant pumpkin growers keep a fall custom alive

The Vermont Giant Pumpkin Growers’ annual weigh-off, held in scaled-back form last weekend, was one of the year’s last agricultural events standing. Photos by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger

COLCHESTER — Giant pumpkin growers have a saying: “We grow ’em to show ’em.” In a summer that many spent isolated at home, growing ’em was no problem. Showing ’em is another story.

Vermonters would typically see giant pumpkins — the bulging, misshapen gourds that can weigh more than a ton — in competition at fairs across the state. But this year, Covid-19 restrictions put 14 major fairs and field days on ice. That left the annual Vermont Giant Pumpkin Growers weigh-off, held in scaled-back form last weekend, as one of the year’s last agricultural events standing.

Organizers capped the number of entries and limited public promotion in the hopes of keeping the 2020 event small. Entrants were required to pre-register using up-to-date contact information, in case a last-minute cancellation announcement came down.

But by noon on Saturday, 22 giant pumpkins, ranging from about 200 to 2,300 pounds, were lined up on pallets alongside a greenhouse at Sam Mazza’s Farm Market, waiting for their turn on the scale.

Among the growers was Steve Geddes, who entered Saturday’s competition as the North American record holder (2,528 pounds, Deerfield Fair, 2018). Geddes, from Boscawen, New Hampshire, seemed unmoved by the change in schedule. “I grow because I like growing,” he said.

Eyeing his massive, pale tan pumpkin, Geddes said a depression on one side made its weight tough to predict. “It was a beast to lift, I know that,” he said. Its “OTT” — pumpkin grower slang for “over the top,” a preliminary set of measurements — showed it was likely to be the heaviest pumpkin in the line. But, he said, “You don’t know until it hits the scale.”

Steve Geddes fits his pumpkin with a system of nylon straps.

Holly Boyce, clad in a pumpkin-patterned mask and a denim shirt covered in pumpkin-shaped awards patches, stood by recording measurements and weights on a clipboard. She said the extra work of organizing a safer event was worth it to honor the growers’ efforts.

“People put in a lot of time and energy,” Boyce said. “If they didn’t have something to take it to, it would all be useless.”

This year’s cancellations were disappointing, said Anson Tebbetts, secretary of the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, this week. Agricultural fairs give farmers an important opportunity to show their talents, he said: “There’s nothing more satisfying than to win a blue ribbon at a fair.”

Tebbetts said the state has granted about $500,000 in coronavirus relief funds to fairs that had to skip this year’s festivities. Losses reported so far total about $2.5 million.

Growers enter other types of vegetables into competition, like bushel gourds, field pumpkins and oversized tomatoes.

“With Covid, it’s pretty tough,” said pumpkin grower Wayne Seelow, who typically attends weigh-offs in New York and Rhode Island in addition to Vermont. “There’s a lot fewer events.” 

The cancellations have made it harder to seek out awards that accumulate over the season, Seelow said. For example, the “4,000-pound club” — for growers who show multiple pumpkins totaling more than 4,000 pounds — typically requires hauling at least three pumpkins to three different weigh-offs. (Club members win a black-and-tan jacket with a special patch.)

Growers typically spend at least 100 hours per season on a single giant pumpkin plant, said John Young, one of the event’s organizers. Early in the pandemic, he suspected the free time would be a boost to growers: “Within reason, this is the perfect hobby for the coronavirus,” Young said. “The big concern afterwards was, do we get to weigh it? Do we get to see the end of our project?”

It takes about five people and two forklifts to move the heaviest pumpkins from their pallets to the platform scale.

Organized weigh-offs are important for growers, Young said, because the recorded weights are made “official” by the Great Pumpkin Commonwealth. Casually referred to by growers as the “GPC,” the governing body certifies results from weigh-offs across the globe. (The GPC website currently lists dozens of upcoming events, including weigh-offs in Seattle, Finland and Slovenia.) 

“A pumpkin grown in this area and weighed is going to be looked upon as every other pumpkin that was official on the world stage,” Young said.

The events also give growers, who spend much of their summer tending an inedible, immovable vegetable, a chance to catch up and compare notes. 

“There’s just an appreciation of the hobby,” Young said. “We want people to grow a personal best. Most growers will say, ‘I hope you grow a really big pumpkin … that’s a pound lighter than mine.’”

When the weigh-off began, teams fitted each pumpkin with straps, fastened it to a forklift, and guided it onto a platform scale while Young announced the official weights. Geddes won the day — his ambiguous pumpkin ended up weighing 2,304 pounds, beating the Vermont record previously held by Holly Boyce and her husband, Dan (2,017.5 pounds, in 2018).

On the mic, Young warned the rookies in the crowd about what they were in for. “It’s a very addictive hobby,” he said. “It’s kinda like owning a boat; you always want one more foot. With a pumpkin, you always want 100 more pounds.”

Twenty-two pumpkins competed on Saturday at Sam Mazza’s Farm Market in Colchester.

Mike Dougherty

About Mike

Mike Dougherty is VTDigger’s digital editor. He is a DC-area native and studied journalism and music at New York University. Prior to joining VTDigger, Mike spent two years as a program coordinator for the Vermont Humanities Council. Before moving to Vermont in 2015, he spent seven years managing recording operations for the oral history nonprofit StoryCorps, assisted Magnum photographer Susan Meiselas, and contributed to the Brooklyn-based alt-weekly L Magazine.

Email: [email protected]

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