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Lords of the Gourds

The world of competitive pumpkin growing yields gigantic results at Frerichs Farm’s Pumpkin Palooza

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What’s orange, weighs more than 2,000 pounds, and has provoked an international rivalry? No, this isn’t a political joke, but something far more serious. We’re talking, of course, about the Southern New England Giant Pumpkin Growers Weigh-off.

In 2015, Ron Wallace of Greene, Rhode Island, carved up the record books with a 2,230-pound. pumpkin displayed at the 18th annual Pumpkin Palooza at Frerich’s Farm in Warren. The amateur farmer was also the first person to ever grow a pumpkin exceeding 1,500 pounds, back in 2006.

Since then, however, pumpkin sizes have been expanding faster than a trick-or-treater’s stomach – and growers in Belgium, Switzerland, and Great Britain have taken the lead in producing giant pumpkins.

In 2016, a Belgian man weighed in with a 2,624.6-pound pumpkin, a record that still stands.

Fast forward to 2018’s Pumpkin Palooza, which will take place every weekend this year between September 9 and October 21. The annual event includes picking in the farm’s pumpkin patch, rides in a pumpkin coach, a hay pile for kids to play in, a pirate ship playground, and a mocked-up western town with gold panning. You can also get instruction on how to make a scarecrow to protect your own garden pumpkins from aerial invaders.

By far, however, the highlight is the annual Giant Pumpkin Weigh-Off, scheduled for October 6 (rain dates are October 7 and 8). The pumpkins will start arriving at around 9am, accompanied by music from the Big Red Barn Blue Grass Band and followed by the much-anticipated Pumpkin Drop at 11:30am. That’s when a donated monster pumpkin will plunge 75 feet before smashing on the ground, spreading cheer, guts, and precious seeds that can be scooped up by visitors who want to try to raise their own giant pumpkin next season.

In the past, the drop has featured pumpkins weighing anywhere from 350 to 1,200 pounds. How big this year’s plummeting pumpkin will be depends on the generosity of local growers, says farm owner David Frerich, who promises a spectacular mess, regardless.

“It blows your mind,” says Frerich who runs the event with his wife, Barbara.

The official pumpkin weigh-in starts at noon, and anyone can bring their prize gourd to be weighed. Frerich says the weekend typically attracts 4,000 to 5,000 visitors with its budget-friendly admission ($5 per carload) and activities such as harides are just $1 per person.

“We keep it reasonable, and people have a blast,” says Frerich. “It’s a real family event, and every year we add something new.” This year, for example, will be the
debut of the Pumpkin Man Racing Ramp – a race between wheeled, carved pumpkins.

Should Rhode Islanders expect to see another record-breaking pumpkin this year? Probably not, says Wallace.

“We had a great spring, but it’s just gotten too hot and humid, and there’s been too much rain recently,” says the former manager at the Quidnesset Country Club, who now has a booming business selling his Wallace Organic Wonder giant pumpkin seeds and proprietary soil blend (the latter infused with a beneficial fungi called mycorrhizal).

Even in semi-retirement, raising giant pumpkins is practically a full-time job for Wallace, who puts in 40-plus hours a week on his crop every spring, summer, and fall. It’s a skill he learned from his father 25 years ago and one that, despite the challenging New England growing season, allows him to routinely produce pumpkins weighing in excess of one ton.

Pumpkin Palooza typically includes 25 to 50 entries, including from what Wallace calls the 40 or so “serious growers” in Rhode Island as well as other New England states. But probably not from Belgium.

“They’ve done a great job perfecting their greenhouse environment,” says Wallace of his overseas rivals, who in reality are viewed as friends and collaborators: the grower community freely shares seeds and knowledge in a friendly competition to see who will be first to top the 3,000-pound pumpkin mark.

Absent a phenomenal local growing season, the odds are probably on the greenhouse growers in Europe, Wallace admits. “In New England, it’s very difficult to grow year-round in a greenhouse: how would you cool it in the summer?” he says.

Still, “Giant pumpkins can pack on 35 pounds a day, and there’s still a ways to go before weigh-in day, so you never know,” says Frerich. And any 2,000-pound pumpkin remains a wonder to behold.

“Any time you get a pumpkin that big it’s a good year,” Wallace says. “That’s what I’m going for, and I think I have a shot.”