How times have changed. Fourteen years ago, Bill Bobier of Windsor grew the largest pumpkin in the world. It weighed 986 pounds, and he won $10,000. Hundreds of spectators were on hand for the weigh-off, and the pumpkin was later shipped to Switzerland for a holiday display.
On Sunday, Bill Bobier again won the local weigh-off at the Great Pumpkin Farm in Clarence. The hour-long competition attracted only a few dozen spectators – most of them standing with their own mammoth pumpkins, which looked like melting misshapen beanbag chairs arranged in a semi-circle on sagging pallets.
Bobier’s “Incredible Hulk” greenish gourd, the second-to-last to be weighed, sent the scale to a whopping 1,552 pounds. He won $5,000, but the Hulk isn’t even in the world top 10 for size this year.
Such is the short and fast history of growing gigantic Halloween gourds. For the first few years of serious competitive growing, a 1,000-pound pumpkin was the barrier to be broken, the four-minute-mile for a small and dedicated group of garden hobbyists. (Giant pumpkins have been weighed for records since 1900, when the first was over 400 pounds, but record holders stayed under 500 pounds for more than 80 years.)
In 1996, Nathan and Paula Zehr of Collins cracked the 1,000-pound barrier with a 1,061 pound pumpkin, and in the 21st century, half-ton pumpkins have been so common the gold ring is now a 2,000-pounder.
So far this year, more than 200 pumpkins weighing over 1,000 pounds have been recorded at weigh-ins around the country; two have been more than 1,800 pounds; 20 more than 1,500 pounds, according to records of the Great Pumpkin Commonwealth, a pumpkin-growers group that certifies competitions.
Bobier, who first topped the half-ton mark in 2002 when he won in Clarence with a 1,037½ pound beast, said that until Sunday, his best pumpkin was 1,405 pounds and that he was hoping at least for a “personal best” this year.
“I used to grow eight or nine plants, figuring strength in numbers,” Bobier said, “but for what you have to do to manage each plant, it was too much. This year I started with four. The fourth one split in July at about 750 pounds, so that got me down to three, which was more manageable.”
Asked what he feeds these monsters – one of the others was more than 1,300 pounds and took second place in Cooperstown – Bobier said with a grin, “Well, I used to have five children, and now I have three.”
That’s giant pumpkin grower humor, not the real secret to his successes.
“I grow organic, or as close to it as I can. I fertilize with fish, kelp, things like that, and I only grow every other year. I work on the soil the in-between year, because otherwise, it would just get worn out,” Bobier said.
Pumpkins and a few normal-size vegetables for his family are the only farming he does. His other job is maintaining chimneys, giving him time to work on the pumpkins in the summer.
“You’re growing plants that take up 700 to 1,000 square feet, and you have to tame and trim those vines,” he said. “The way we say it is, we want to grow fruit, not salad.”
The last pumpkin weighed on Sunday belonged to the 2012 winner and hometown favorite, Karl Haist Sr. of Clarence. Haist brought in a beautiful light orange entry of even size and color, and it was indisputably large.
Its size was deceptive, however. The tape measure made it the biggest entry, but its weight, 1,477 pounds, left it behind both the Hulk and a 1,512-pound pumpkin driven five hours from Northville by Todd Brownell.
Brownell will be among the competitors who qualify this year to receive a Great Pumpkin Commonwealth jacket, awarded to growers who achieve 4,000 pounds of certified weight with three pumpkins.
“Just to get three pumpkins to a scale is an achievement,” Emcee Andy Wolf proclaimed.
He should know. His own entry put the scale at 1,406 pounds.
“This is the sixth 1,400 pound pumpkin that I’ve grown,” Wolf said. “One fellow said that I’ve grown more 1,400 pound pumpkins without getting over 1,500 pounds than anyone in the world.”
The camaraderie among the competitors is an inspiring thing to watch in the weigh-off’s downtime, as pumpkins are carefully shuttled from pallet to scale and back again with forklifts. Growers discuss seed, soil conditions, how to keep the pumpkins growing without cracking, and other tips.
Tim Bailey from Jamestown won the Howard Dill Award for the best-looking pumpkin, one of two entries that maintained the traditional jack-o’-lantern deep orange color. Bailey grows his pumpkins on two plants coiled into his small backyard within Jamestown city limits. His 1,295½-pound prize winner was not just orange, it was also well-shaped, suitable for Cinderella’s coach, if it had four wheels under it.
The top pumpkins will remain on display at the Great Pumpkin Farm, 11199 Main St., until Oct. 21. On the Columbus Day holiday next Monday, a 1,000-pound pumpkin will be dropped from 100 feet in the air and other giant pumpkins will be carved.