Sunday, May 02, 2004
Pumpkin v. Pumpkin
Along the 43rd parallel in North America, raising pumpkins isn’t just a sleepy backyard pursuit–it’s an extreme sport. And nowhere are the stakes higher, or the intrigues thicker, than at the annual weigh-off of the World Pumpkin Confederation, the Olympics of garden-patch gigantism.
“Most people think I’m an idiot.”
That’s Ray Waterman, giant pumpkin impresario, talking to the media from ground zero in Collins, New York, just south of Buffalo. While it’s true that Waterman’s entire life revolves around what he calls the “sport hobby” of growing record-breaking specimens of Cucurbita maxima, he isn’t exactly an idiot. Waterman’s a wily operator, and tomorrow, October 5, 1996, is his World Pumpkin Confederation’s yearly weigh-off. He’s got CNN on the line and USA Today on hold while the Today people book the live feed. Tomorrow, Waterman hopes to present a $50,000 check to the grower who produces a pumpkin that hits or surpasses the mythic 1,000-pound mark. It’s a grail that pumpkin green thumbs have been talking and dreaming about for over a decade, a grail that now actually seems within reach. (Two years ago, in fact, Herman Bax of Brockville, Ontario, stunned the pumpkin establishment with a leviathan that weighed in at 990 pounds.) Waterman’s expectations, and his knack for cultivating the media, have been building for years: Tomorrow’s weigh-off, should it yield a monster fruit, will be an apotheosis of sorts.
It will also be an occasion requiring considerable diplomacy on Waterman’s part. For as it turns out, there is trouble in the ranks of the pumpkin world–schisms and petty jealousies and internecine conflicts. And not everyone is on Ray Waterman’s side.
In the popular imagination, the world of pumpkin growing is a happy one, peopled with rustic farmers and punctuated with familiar orange orbs that bring smiles to the faces of children. What could these growers possibly argue about? The proper ratio of cow manure to hog manure? A better way to carve a jack-o’-lantern’s nose? No. Unfortunately, competitive pumpkin growers, world-class growers, argue about things like hypodermic needles and silicone gel. They accuse one another of cheating, lying, hoarding prize seeds. They scheme and spread rumors. They file lawsuits.
You wouldn’t sense any of this upon first meeting Ray Waterman. Initially he comes across as nice, fastidious, soft-spoken, perhaps a little stern. He wears blue jeans and a farmer’s plaid shirt. He keeps his graying blond hair neatly trimmed. The day before the weigh-off, I drink a cup of coffee with him in the dining room of Waterman’s, the family
Waterman unloads his goliath fruitrestaurant he owns and runs in Collins. It’s a Naugahyde-stool-and-Formica-table sort of joint where the dessert special is–what else?–pumpkin pie. Next door is Waterman’s party lounge, The Pumpkin Room.
Waterman seems bored with our conversation until I bring up the bad blood between his World Pumpkin Confederation and its dreaded rival, the Great Pumpkin Commonwealth. Then he leans forward, and a trace of a smile stretches across his thin lips. Suddenly Waterman has turned into something dark and strangely sacerdotal, a master of esoteric intrigues: the archdruid of the vine.
Humongous pumpkins, really, really, really humongous pumpkins, pumpkins with the kind of heft and girth and pleasant rind-thumping tonalities that will turn the head of a man like Ray Waterman, are freaks of nature. Nearly all of the champs have come from highly prized, highly specialized seeds–most notably the Atlantic Giant, a strain that a Nova Scotia dairyman named Howard Dill hybridized back in the 1970s with an eye toward the record books.
Giant pumpkins are nursed on a rarefied diet of manure, composted vegetable matter, and vast quantities of water. For plants that seem to advertise their own robustness, giant pumpkins can be astonishingly fragile. If exposed to the summer sun, their skin burns and blisters. If they go thirsty, they wilt. Neglect to remove a stone from the soil under the fruit, and you lose five pounds as the pumpkin grows around it. A thumbnail dent can cost several ounces.
Giant pumpkins prefer long, sunny days and cool nights, which is precisely why most of the world champions have been grown along the 43d parallel–especially around upstate New York and southern Ontario. Here in the Great Pumpkin Belt, it takes just 70 days for a Dill’s Atlantic Giant to grow from the size of a handball to the size of a doghouse. At the peak of their growing season–in July and August–championship pumpkins can take on 35 pounds a day. Some people say you can even hear them growing.
I took my first innocent step into the world of competitive pumpkin husbandry on a crisp October afternoon, just a few days before Waterman’s big event. The aroma of crushed grapes filled the air as Craig Lembke, of Forestville, New York, led me past his vinyl-sided farmhouse, through his vineyard, and on toward his pride and joy: a vaguely ominous-looking patch of vegetation, some 3,600 square feet in all, with leaves as big as tea trays bobbing a foot above the ground. Vines as thick as my forearm snaked through the dirt.
In the middle of it all slumbered the behemoth itself. Like a pampered celebrity, it had its own personal windbreak, and a sunshade too. As I drew closer to the orange mound, however, I found the object of Lembke’s devotion a sad spectacle indeed.
If the perception of the giant pumpkin is something out of Playboy, pneumatically plump and rounded, the reality is more along the lines of National Geographic, where gravity and time’s inexorable march have left their mark. Lembke’s fruit looked wrinkled, flaccid. The pocked and dimpled skin conspicuously sagged. Superficial wounds and soft spots added further insult.
I tried to hide my disappointment, for love had obviously blinded Lembke. His eyes gleamed as he pointed out the thickness of his pumpkin’s rind. “She took a thousand gallons of water a day in August,” he said, beaming with pride.
Lembke figured his pumpkin for about 650 pounds–not enough to win him first place, though probably good enough to make the top ten. But he had something that excited him even more, in the next plot over. We waded through the tall leaves and carefully lifted a blue tarp. There, at the end of the vine, lay a giant green squash.
The squash, he explained, comes from the same seed as the pumpkin. If the gene for color expresses itself as orange, the fruit gets called a pumpkin and starts down a path toward glory that could culminate in an appearance on David Letterman and a cross-country tour, hitting state fairs and casinos in Atlantic City and Las Vegas and bringing thousands more dollars to the proud owner. If the fruit grows up green, on the other hand, its fate is more circumscribed. It competes with other green squashes for paltry prize sums, and its chances of ever going on a victory tour are slim to none.
Lembke thought his green prodigy weighed about 750 pounds–quite possibly the next squash champion of the world. The only question was where to take it. The closest weigh-off was Waterman’s event, the WPC contest over in Clarence, a mere 30-minute drive northeast from here. But over the last few years Lembke had turned sour on the WPC. He believed that WPC members hoarded prize seeds. He accused Waterman of corrupting the hobby with his $50,000 payout offer. Lembke said he really didn’t want to talk about the WPC, but the whole subject was like a scab he couldn’t stop picking. At any rate, his mind was all made up: Tomorrow morning he planned to drive all the way over to Oswego, a four-hour trek, to enter a contest held by the Great Pumpkin Commonwealth. If his squash were to win there, he’d fetch $200–and a ribbon.
Lembke showed me his squash’s stem, which was about nine inches in circumference. “Long, big, thick,” he said, nodding. “That’s an ideal stem.” Then he experienced a momentary reality check, adding, “But who wants to see a giant squash?”
Craig Lembke planted his first pumpkin patch in 1981, purely to amuse his young daughter, Angela. Right off the bat he got a 50-pounder and was hooked. In the 15 years since, through a regimen of hard science and meticulous care, he’d managed to increase his best pumpkins’ weight by more than 650 pounds. Last year, he took two 700-plus pounders to a weigh-off in Canfield, Ohio, and came home with third prize–$250 and a “real nice plaque.”
The season begins in early April, when Lembke pokes ten seeds into small cups of soil in his greenhouse. Within a few days, the sprouts emerge. He inspects them daily, offers them encouraging words. Around the first or second week of May, he transplants the sprouts into the ground. The mother vine begins to lengthen, about a foot a day. When the plant blossoms, Lembke transfers pollen from a male blossom into a female. To prevent bees from horning in on this private genetic experiment, he covers the blossoms with plastic bags.
If Lembke’s handiwork is successful, the tiny fruit that’s present under every female blossom “takes off.” He’ll bury each vine so it will throw down a taproot and bring up more nutrients. To get maximum nourishment and water into the potential prizewinners, he’ll gradually winnow the number of fruits on the plant to five or six and then, after about 30 days, to one.
This last fruit, known among horticulturists as a “sink,” will be the beneficiary of the entire plant’s photosynthates. Some vines and leaves will also be carefully pruned. “You want the nutrition going into the pumpkin, not those other parts,” Lembke says.
While Lembke’s methods are certainly labor-intensive, they seem fairly straightforward when compared to those of growers like Leonard Stellpflug, of Nunda, New York, who is known to use a divining rod to find water caches and energy fields. Other growers have installed 1,000-watt grow lights or heated their irrigation water to avoid shocking the roots. In Pennsylvania, a man chopped down a dozen oak trees just to get another half-hour of sunlight on his patch. Some top growers, wary of vandals who might slice up their pumpkins and abscond with the seeds, set up roving security cameras.
The bigger a pumpkin is, the more likely it is to split and the more susceptible it is to disease. Every ten days, Lembke sprays his pumpkins with insecticide. He dusts small bruises with captan, a fungicide. He fertilizes with a compost of rice hulls and grapes. He spreads cow manure. He plucks off insects and frets when the wind comes up. “A windstorm could flip the whole vine over!” he told me. When the pumpkin achieves “propane tank” size–that’s well after lemon, baseball, and basketball size–Lembke erects the plastic sunshade, and the coddling begins in earnest.
By September, Lembke is a nervous wreck, checking his patch three or four times a day. September is the do-or-die month. It was in September, just a few weeks ago, that three of his most promising young beasts had split on him. “You get cold nights and the skin toughens,” he said. “Then you get a hot day and-boom.”
At about five o’clock, two reporters from the Syracuse University TV station arrived to interview a very excited Lembke. His eyes were bright, and he smiled while he talked. What are you feeling right now? they asked. “I feel a little shaky. It’s five months of hard work. All the worrying about bugs and weather and vandalism. I won’t sleep Friday night.”
A little later, as the sun oozed behind Lake Erie, Lembke solemnly asked if I’d like to cut the pumpkin from its vine. He removed a penknife from his pocket and pointed to a spot wo inches from the fruit. I knelt and prepared myself for the great moment–a gush of umbilical fluids, perhaps, a faintly audible death rattle as the life forces receded. But the knife bit easily into the stem, and in two dry strokes, I was through.
People have have been cultivating pumpkins for 10,000 years, and pumpkin weigh-offs have been a staple of county fairs and harvest exhibitions since the early 1800s. But competitive growing didn’t attain international stature until 1900, when William Warnock, of Goderich, Ontario, sent a 400-pound specimen to the Paris World’s Fair. In 1903 he bettered his record by three pounds. That record held until 1976, when a Pennsylvania man exhibited a 451-pounder at the U.S. Pumpkin Contest in Churchville, Pennsylvania.
From then on, the numbers steadily climbed. Starting in the late seventies, Howard Dill coaxed his Atlantic Giant seeds into world-championship pumpkins for four years running. Ray Waterman was duly impressed. In 1982 he contacted Dill, and together they founded the World Pumpkin Confederation. “A lot of county fairs were weighing off,” explains Waterman, “and they needed credibility and standardization.”
Soon the rules were codified and competition grew immeasurably stiffer. Quantum advances in seed genetics led to consistently larger pumpkins: in the 700-pound range, then up to 800. As the prize money inched upward, competition became cutthroat and cheating more common. People doctored cracks in their pumpkins with automotive body filler. They injected water into the cavity with a hypodermic needle. Then there was the guy who razored off the stem of his pumpkin, filled it with water, and sealed the whole thing with superglue. He got caught when a judge jabbed a knife into the base and orange water poured out by the gallon.
In 1993, a number of disenchanted WPC officials, including the renowned pumpkin seed savant himself, Howard Dill, bolted from Waterman’s group and created their own, the Great Pumpkin Commonwealth. From the start, there was bad blood between the two organizations. Dill’s group claimed that most of the WPC sites didn’t pay out and that Waterman cared more about publicity than the growers themselves. WPC loyalists, on the other hand, argued that the fledgling GPC tolerated cheaters and the rigging of contests.
In the fall of 1993, the year that a Winthrop, New York, grower named Don Black raised an enormous pumpkin, the infighting took a turn for the worse. On October 1, Black placed his pumpkin, along with the large tarp in which it was wrapped, on the scales at a GPC site in Nova Scotia. Afterward, officials weighed the tarp alone and subtracted the six-pound difference. Black’s pumpkin weighed 884 pounds-easily the largest pumpkin in the world at that time.
Meanwhile, Norm Craven, a realtor from Stouffville, Ontario, won a WPC contest near his home with a pumpkin that weighed a mere 836 pounds. Ignoring Brown’s record altogether, Waterman reported Craven’s lesser pumpkin to the Guinness Book of Records.
When Black saw the 1994 edition of Guinness, he went ballistic, as did Howard Dill. Not only did they charge Waterman with willfully misreporting the record; they also accused Craven of cheating–of bracing a split stem with silicone.
To this day, however, Ray Waterman defends the Craven fruit and maintains that Black’s pumpkin was improperly weighed. Waterman, it seems, is a strict constructionist. “WPC rules state that you cannot weigh the tarp!” he says.
“Yeah, but then they subtracted the tarp,” I say.
Waterman only shrugs. Rules are rules. There’s nothing that can be done. But when I press Waterman further, I gather that all this to-the-letter quibbling over tarps is really immaterial. “We wouldn’t be inclined to recognize any GPC record,” Waterman finally admits. “Because if you take that group, they really have no rules! We’re not going to put the credibility of the whole Confederation on the line.”
The dawning of the age of the kilo-pounder: World Pumpkin Confederation president Ray Waterman congratulates Paula and Nathan Zehr on their winning orb,
Waterman doesn’t know where Craig Lembke is going to weigh off either, and this clearly bugs him. So I spill the beans: Lembke is going to Oswego. Waterman shakes his head in dismay. “That’s a long way to drive to win very little money.” Well, I reply, he’s got a fine squash this year, and he thinks it will place in Oswego. Waterman is positively incredulous. It’s hard for him to understand why anyone would deliberately miss out on history in the making, the chance to see the world’s very first kilopounder. “He’s going all the way to Oswego with a stupid squash?” he asks, squinting.
It’s just above freezing as the first specimens arrive at the Great Pumpkin Farm, a sprawling roadside patch in Clarence, New York. Steve Baldo Chevrolet has a half-dozen new pickups parked out behind the candy apple and fried dough stands. From their antennas, red, white, and blue flags snap in the breeze. A hundred normal-size pumpkins–Pick Your Own!–dot a dry, brown field.
WPC officials wearing orange jackets register each giant, El Markoing a four-digit number onto the skin. Waterman is in operations mode, barking commands into a walkie-talkie, directing pickups, and telling the man from Fairbanks Scales where to park it. By nine o’clock, about 75 people are milling around. Twenty giant pumpkins are lined up and waiting.”That looks like a squash to me,” a man whispers to his wife.
Paula and Nathan Zehr arrive in a pickup pulling a horse trailer. WPC officials remove the first of three pumpkins with a forklift. “Whoa,” says the crowd. All three are monstrous. Paula is inside the truck flossing her teeth, and she won’t say a word to anyone until she’s done.
The Zehrs look like the kind of people you might see in a Publisher’s Clearinghouse commercial. She has a light brown bob and wears pink lipstick and a pink parka. Her white blouse is buttoned to her throat. Nathan has bristling brown hair and looks sportif in a white cardigan and Top-Siders. Nutrition consultants by trade, the Zehrs began growing pumpkins as a hobby ten years ago. When Waterman issued the 1,000-pound challenge, they took up the call, devoting five hours a day for six months to three promising-looking pumpkins, which they named My Secret Prayer, The Great Can Do, and Do It Again. Last night the fear of a last-minute disaster compelled Nathan to sleep, Linuslike, in his patch.
Giant pumpkin growers talk like sports stars. The Zehrs are no exception. What do you think of the competition? “I think we’ve got a real good pumpkin here today, and we just came out here to have some fun.” (That’s Nathan.) How do you explain your success? “We never gave up believing that we could go for it. God’s blessed us. We’re just the caretakers.” (That’s Paula.)
Earlier, I asked Paula if the animosity between the WPC and the GPC bothered her. Then she sounded less like a sports star and more like a schoolteacher. “If you want to talk dirt with other people, you do that, but we’re just trying to grow pumpkins.”
Plant physiologists and university extension services have little to teach people like the Zehrs, who represent the cutting edge of gigantism. Growing these things is largely a mystical process. Because you can’t interrupt a giant’s growth, you can’t completely assess its health until you cut it from the vine, at which point it’s too late to make corrections. Although they keep meticulous logs of each pumpkin’s genetic lineage and the precise amounts of food, water, and other stuff each pumpkin consumes on any given day, growers like the Zehrs don’t completely understand what makes one so much larger than another.
With the crowd swarming around him, Nathan Zehr cuts a slice from Can Do’s stem and points at a few rust-colored spots in the woody-looking conductive tissue. What are the spots from? I ask him. “We don’t know, but it may be some kind of bacteria,” Nathan says. Couldn’t the local ag experts tell you? He cuts me a look. “We’ll listen to them when they grow a pumpkin as big as ours.”
The weighing commences at 10:30. We get some 500-pounders, some sixes and sevens. It quickly becomes apparent that the emcee, a man named Kelly Schultz who is the owner of the Great Pumpkin Farm, plans to drag out the ceremony as long as possible. Weights over 700 pounds draw polite rounds of applause. I’ll soon learn that the visual difference between a 600-pound pumpkin and a 700-pound pumpkin is negligible. Most of the weight is in the rind, which can grow up to 14 inches thick.
A carousel spins nearby; essence of corndog bathes the crowd. I wander over to some tables covered with giant sunflowers, giant rutabagas, giant gourds, giant kohlrabies, giant cornstalks, and giant radishes. This is the grand arena for Waterman’s Olympics of Gardening, the green hall of fame. Prizes will be awarded in each of these categories, but so far these attractions have drawn little notice.
With the larger pumpkins, Schultz heightens the drama by covering the readout of the digital scales until he can focus the crowd’s attention. It’s one o’clock by the time the first of the Zehrs’ pumpkins makes it to the scales. Do It Again, an exhibition-only pumpkin, weighs in at 845. “Folks, I have to ask ya to please stand back and make way for the forklift,” Waterman exhorts the crowd, now eight people deep. My Secret Prayer, also exhibition only, weighs 917 pounds.
The Zehrs are beaming. Paula has shed her parka and freshened her lipstick. She holds Nathan’s hand as the forklift delivers The Great Can Do to the scales. The pumpkin is knobby and off-kilter, and looks like the prow of a sinking ship. The forklift backs away. An assistant shades the digital readout. It’s a nail-biting moment.
“If we get a thousand-pounder,” shouts Waterman, “we gotta let the folks in the next county hear it.” Oswego is in the next county, where at this very moment Craig Lembke is winning $100 for his second-place squash.
Finally, the suspense is unbearable. The shade comes off the scale and Waterman pronounces the weight: “One thousand and 61 pounds!” The crowd roars. Nathan and Paula hug conservatively and then raise their arms in champion salute. The great barrier has been shattered at last, the Mach One of the vegetable world, and the Zehrs are $50,000 richer.
Waterman passes Paula the microphone. “We’d like to thank God, our community, our friends, and our church.” Waterman presents the Zehrs with their check. Then he implores the crowd, “Folks, when you get your photographs of the pumpkin, do not let the kids sit on it.” He steps back a little and lets the TV crews swarm. Waterman is in heaven. It’s everything he ever dreamed of. He lets the moment percolate, lets the reporters have their way. Then the forklift returns the kilo-pounder to its pallet, and people start drifting toward their cars.
Waterman gets right back in front of the mike. “Don’t go away folks,” he pleads. “We’ve got a lot more things to weigh.”
Correspondent Elizabeth Royte wrote about the Iditarod sled dog race in the December 1996 issue.