It takes a lot of time and there are often setbacks but for these two Kewaunee County men, growing giant pumpkins is ‘a sense of wonder’
CASCO – Out front of Hillside Apples on State 54 in Casco are two pieces of eye-catching fruit — and no, they're not apples.
The giant pumpkins, each 850 pounds or more and dwarfing their nearby regular-size cousins, are so unbelievably huge that a sign posted nearby reads: "Yes, the pumpkin is real."
The giants were grown individually by Bill Roethle, owner of Hillside Apples, and Matt Fay, of Algoma. They won't be at the store this Saturday, however, because Roethle and Fay are entering them in the giant pumpkin competition at Mishicot Pumpkinfest, weighing in against 15 or more other pumpkins bred for one reason — to be as big as they can be, because the heaviest one is the winner.
The contest is recognized by the Wisconsin Giant Pumpkin Growers and the Great Pumpkin Commonwealth, the latter a worldwide organization that promotes giant pumpkin growing and established rules and standards for contests.
Like at most other giant pumpkin contests, there also will be competition for heaviest field pumpkin, squash, watermelon and longest gourd, but the giants are the stars of the show — where else can one see a fruit weighing close to, in some cases more than, a ton?
"It's a sense of wonder," Fay said about the attraction. "Kids see these, they absolutely love them. You get one of these in front of a school bus full of kids, they can't help but be excited."
Their pumpkins are huge but theirs are 'babies' compared to others likely seen at Mishicot Pumpkinfest
While Roethle and Fay are proud of their pumpkins, they admit their entries likely have no chance of winning in Mishicot. Fay's entry weighs 878 pounds and Roethle estimated the one he has on display at about 850, although he had one still growing in his patch that might get close to 900 by contest time.
Those numbers are impressive, but Fay's giant was entered in a competition Sept. 11 in Kenosha and could only place eighth, with the winner tipping the scales at 1,618 pounds. The winner of another contest a week later in Cedarburg checked in at 1,976 pounds and a contest the week after that in Nekoosa weighed 2,002.
And those wouldn't be close to the all-time Wisconsin record, a 2,283-pound monstrosity grown in 2018 by John Barlow of Gays Mills and Caleb Jacobus of Soldiers Grove, the latter of which was also the winner of this year's Kenosha and Nekoosa contests. Barlow also is the defending state champion with a 2,114-pound pumpkin he grew last year.
The U.S. record is a 2,528-pounder cultivated by Steve Geddes of New Hampshire in 2018, and Stefano Cutrupi of Italy reset the world record at 2,702.8 pounds, the first recorded over the 2,700 mark, in late September in a competition in his home country.
"These are babies compared to some," Fay said about his and Roethle's entries. "You've got to be well over 1,500 pounds to get into the top five."
However, Fay hopes his pumpkin repeats a win it earned in the Kenosha show — the Howard Dill Award, named for the late Canadian known as the “Father of Giant Pumpkin Growing." It's essentially a Best Appearing Pumpkin prize given at each contest for the giant with the best shape and orange color, although its size matters, too. It's not an easy award to win because the sheer weight of the giants, even with their 6- to 8-inch-thick shells, causes them to dramatically sag and flatten, many ending up looking something like a melting Jabba the Hutt.
How the Bill Roethle and Matt Fay started growing giant pumpkins
Roethle first tried growing giant pumpkins a couple years ago, but he said he's been interested in them for years as a longtime pumpkin grower.
"I've been growing pumpkins even before I bought (Hillside Apples) 25 years ago," he said.
Then Fay encouraged Roethle to try growing the giants. Fay is a longtime customer who began growing them five years ago.
To get started, both joined the Wisconsin Giant Pumpkin Growers Association, a membership organization which sponsors five competitions each fall and encourages and promotes growing and growers of giant pumpkins, along with other fruits and vegetables, in the state. Membership is $30 a year, which includes a packet of 15 to 20 giant pumpkin seeds, which have distinct varieties from eating and carving pumpkins, harvested by members the previous year.
The latter is more than just a giveaway; Roethle said seeds from a pumpkin with proven, desirable genetics can sell for $500 each. But Fay said another important factor in joining the association is the chance to learn from other members and share the experiences.
"Everyone in this club doesn't hold secrets, they will share information with you," Fay said. "No one wants to see another person fail."
There also are "patch tours," where several members from a certain area host other members, serve lunch and let them visit their pumpkin patches and discuss their efforts. Roethle, Fay and Chase Romdenne, a 14-year-old member from Algoma, volunteered to host a tour this July.
"The funny thing is, (Fay) named it the Rookie Patch Tour," Roethle said.
What the process is like for growing a giant pumpkin
Of course, it's not easy to grow a giant pumpkin. Planting a seed, even one with good genetics, is just the beginning.
For one thing, considering the size the fruit is supposed to reach, they take up a lot of space — "These plants will end up 1,000, 1,200 square feet (because) the vines spread," Roethle said — and require maintenance while growing that's different from most other plants.
"You get the plant to grow like the shape of a Christmas tree," Fay said. "You're burying vines, you're repositioning vines, you're repositioning the pumpkin, the vines have to have a little slack.
"You don't know how useful a swimming pool noodle is until you grow a giant pumpkin," he said with a laugh.
Their size also can make them susceptible to cracking, collapsing or other traumatic events, especially those grown outdoors like Roethle's. The state growers association's Facebook page has posts featuring horror stories of 2,000-pound pumpkins splitting and cracking.
"They can rot, they can crack, they can split, there's insects, mice can chew on them," Roethle said. "The first year I tried, I think (the pumpkin) got to around 150, 200 pounds, then it snapped off the vine. The next year, it melted in the sun, never made it three days."
"If it's dry and then you get 3 inches of rain, the pumpkin will soak it all up and just, pfft!, it'll blow up," Fay said.
Planting takes place by the end of April, and it takes about 60 days for the plant to begin to show fruit compared to 30 days for a carving pumpkin, followed by 60 to 80 days allowing the fruit to grow.
"It's plant 'em, fertilize 'em, give them insecticide, cultivate the weeds. Then when it hits July, you're done doing anything until it's picking time," Roethle said.
"It's like having a child or a pet," Fay said. "You spend a little time with it every day, nurturing it."
When the fruit starts growing, it grows very quickly. Roethle said his and Fay's pumpkins were putting on an estimated 25 pounds a day, and the really giant ones can gain more than 30 a day.
"You can literally watch them swell like a water balloon, they grow so fast," Fay said.
Harvesting and transporting a giant pumpkin also presents unusual issues; growers need to be cautious to not have their prize fruit crack open while trying to lift it. Roethle and Fay use a flexible ring that slides around and under their pumpkins and hooks to a harness that is lifted by a small forklift.
It takes time to grow these pumpkins but the reward is worth it
How much expense goes into cultivating the giants depends on the grower. Fay gets his soil tested two or three times a year and has a heating system for his indoor patch — "Pumpkins like it hot," Roethle noted — and is building a 28-by-60-foot greenhouse to grow and hold two pumpkins. Roethle said time is his biggest expenditure.
"I don't think I have $500 in it," he said, "but I have 100 hours out here."
"Mostly, it's time," Fay added.
There are some monetary rewards for top pumpkins. First place in the Wisconsin contests pays a minimum of $1,000 and sometimes as much as $4,000, with further payouts for the top 10 or 20 places and $500 to $1,000 for the Howard Dill Award. Prizes of $100 to $300 also are given to the winners of the other categories.
On a bigger stage, last weekend's World Championship Pumpkin Weigh-Off in Half Moon Bay, California, scales its first-place prize on a dollars-per-pound basis, so winner Jeff Uhlmeyer pulled in $19,719 for his 2,191-pound entry.
What happens to the giants after they're shown in competitions? While they're edible, Roethle said they're usually not very good eating because they have very high water content. He noted that at an annual contest in Stillwater, Minnesota, they cut the tops off some of the giants, hollow them out and float them in the water (hopefully) for a regatta. Fay said he'll carve his into a massive jack-o'-lantern for his front yard.
Despite the time involved and the likely minimal return of investment, Roethle and Fay said it's worth the effort. There's the friendships made with other giant pumpkin growers who get what they're doing and why, and there's pride in making something that huge and unique.
"It's camaraderie, it's friendly competition," Fay said.
"One thing I tell a lot of people is, as a farmer, there's a lot of reward out of growing apples, making apples into a crop," Roethle said. "(With the pumpkin) at the end of the year, this (gesturing toward it) is the end result. This is your reward. I can't wait to go out into the patch and see how it's growing. And it's fun going to the competitions and seeing how you place."
What you should know about Mishicot Pumpkinfest, Hillside Apples
Mishicot Pumpkinfest takes place from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday, with events at various locations in the village and a parade at noon. The weigh-ins for the giant pumpkin contest and other gourds and fruits (including squash and watermelon) is at Mishicot Country Store, 150 E. Main St.; the pumpkins will be unloaded and weighed before the parade. Other attractions include a pumpkin carving contest, baked goods contest, pumpkin pancakes served until noon, pumpkin beer, pumpkin bowling, a milk bottle tournament, a farmers market, arts and crafts vendors, music, food and kids games. For more information, call 920-755-3411 or visit facebook.com/MishicotPumpkinfest.
Hillside Apples is at E2237 State 54, Casco. Customers can buy pre-picked apples or pick their own, with a variety of pumpkins, gourds and squash also available. Its season closes Oct. 24. For more information, call 920-837-7440 or visit hillsideapples.com or the "Hillside Apples" Facebook page.
Contact Christopher Clough at 920-562-8900 or [email protected].
This article originally appeared on Green Bay Press-Gazette: It takes a lot of time and there are often setbacks but for these two Kewaunee County men, growing giant pumpkins is 'a sense of wonder'