Searching for the Great Pumpkin
Oct 31, 2008
Hey Charlie Brown fans – are you ready for this?
Thad Starr took the top prize at the Safeway World Championship Pumpkin Weigh-Off earlier this month in California: His winning entry, placed on a scale with the assistance of a forklift, came in at 1,528 pounds.
That’s about the size of a mature Holstein cow. Starr’s Oregon-grown pumpkin enlarged so fast that in August it was putting on about 30 pounds per day.
I wish I could lose that much in six months!
Sadly, Starr failed to set a world record. That honor still belongs to Joe Jutras of Rhode Island, who grew a 1,689-pound monster last year.
Talk about a Great Pumpkin!
Of course, I’m not about to place one of these behemoths near my front door tonight for Halloween. It might scare away the trick-or-treaters, especially those who are trying to look like the Headless Horseman.
Even worse, one of these Goliath-sized pumpkins would probably bust my porch.
Yet I’m amazed at what goes into these enormous gourds, a variety known as Atlantic Giants. As with any kind of crop, growing really big pumpkins takes careful work. Here’s how Elizabeth Royte described the process a number of years ago in Outside magazine:
“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.”
The results aren’t pretty: Atlantic Giants are huge, not handsome. Their color is pale rather than bright orange and their shapes are lopsided rather than pleasingly round. Their thick walls aren’t well suited for jack-o’-lanterns, but they’ve given rise to what the Wall Street Journal has called “a new kind of performance art.” With chisels and power tools, carvers can turn Atlantic Giants into fantastic organic sculptures. Shopping malls, casinos, and zoos put them on display--at least until bacteria turn them to rot, in the same way bacteria eventually will destroy pumpkins of any size.
This new micro-industry is the ingenious result of agricultural persistence and scientific know-how. Atlantic Giants never have grown in a wild state of nature. Instead, they’re products of the human imagination. More than three decades ago, they were hybridized by Howard Dill, a Canadian who wanted to grow massive pumpkins. (He still sells seeds and runs a website with growing tips.)
Before Dill, the biggest pumpkins weighed a couple hundred pounds. That’s impressive, but compared to the leviathans of today, they’re a bunch of runts.
There’s a lesson in this with respect to the food crisis. Everyone says the world needs to grow more food, due to a swelling global population and a booming demand for more calories in developing countries. To complicate matters, we’re supposed to perform this feat without taking up much more than our existing farmland.
No, I’m not going to suggest that we go on a diet of giant pumpkins. But I do believe that we can grow our way out of this problem by increasing our yields through sound management and advances in biotechnology.
Farming is one of the oldest jobs in the world--it comes right after hunting and gathering. Yet farmers keep on improving. We’re not only growing insanely oversized pumpkins, but we’re also harvesting more corn, soybeans, wheat and other crops from the very same acres that our parents and grandparents toiled on.
And still we need higher yields. So while a handful of us are striving to set world records in pumpkin contests--could there be a one-ton pumpkin in our future?--most of us are simply working to produce greater amounts of staple crops.
Tonight, Charlie Brown’s friend Linus may go out and wait once again for the Great Pumpkin, who famously never comes. The promise of biotechnology, however, is already here and it will help us feed the world.
John Rigolizzo, Jr. is a fifth generation farmer, raising fresh vegetables and field corn in southern New Jersey. The family farm manages both road side retail and wholesale markets. John is a board member of Truth About Trade and Technology (www.truthabouttrrade.org