Growers take the art of growing pumpkins to the very edge

FAIR: Competition puts the fun in going for the state record.

September 3, 2011 

KENAI -- Before hauling his record-breaking pumpkin to the state fair in Palmer, J.D. Megchelsen tucked in the giant squash between 8:30 and 9 most evenings.

Using a beige blanket, he covered the bulbous, pale mass to conserve warmth. The pumpkin was pale; sickly almost. Lacking the vivid orange hue of its smaller Halloween peers, it hardly looked like a pumpkin at all.

But it's not about growing the prettiest one or the biggest one, Megchelsen said. It's about growing the heaviest pumpkin in the state -- and maybe someday, the world.

Megchelsen has been competitively growing Cucurbita maxima, or Atlantic Giant, pumpkins since 2001. While he has been gardening his whole life, cultivating the plant from tiny seed to massive fruit presented challenges Megchelsen just didn't find in carrots or potatoes.

"This is probably the hardest thing you're ever going to find to grow," he said in an interview days before the Alaska State Fair. "There are so many things that can go wrong."

From blossom and stem splits to cracks in the rib valleys to holes in the walls, there are a number of ways to get disqualified from competition.

And the bigger the pumpkin gets, the more problems arise.

"It's like a minefield that you have to wade through just to get to the end," Megchelsen said. "And if you can do it, you just prove -- well, it doesn't prove anything -- but it does prove that you can navigate through all of the stuff and find a way to ad-lib and get through a myriad of situations."

After setting the state record with a 1,019-pound beauty in 2006, Megchelsen's 2007 pumpkin blew late into the season and prevented him from competing at that year's Alaska State Fair. Three years later, a man named Dale Marshall, who Megchelsen had mentored on the subject of growing giant pumpkins, overtook the record with a 1,101-pounder.

Megchelsen's 1,287-pound pumpkin was the winner last Wednesday and declared the biggest pumpkin ever grown for the annual Giant Pumpkin competition at the state fair. Marshall had a heavier pumpkin, weighing in at 1,723 pounds, but it was disqualified because of a tiny hole.

Marshall, who lives in Anchorage, built two greenhouses twice the size of Megchelsen's, complete with floor heat to get the environment just right. Megchelsen's, though, has a heater, remote thermostat and automatic window vents, so he is certainly not lacking on the technology front.

"I might actually have made this place bigger had I known Dale was going to be coming and making these big greenhouses and upping the game," Megchelsen said, laughing.

Giant pumpkins are known to either "go heavy" or "go light" during weigh-ins, meaning that they come in at more or less than what the measurements would normally predict. Megchelsen said growers can swing the odds in their favor by using seeds genetically predisposed to produce fruit with thicker walls or denser material.

Still, Megchelsen tips his hat to Marshall.

"Any time you can grow one to tape at 1,810 pounds, you've just done an amazing job," he said. "If you can grow one, get it that size and get it to weigh-off in one piece, you've hit quite a milestone."

In the world of competitive pumpkin growing, there isn't really much in the realm of animosity or hard feelings. Megchelsen said competitors will help their peers out at the drop of a hat; he even built several lifting rings for Marshall to use when transporting his pumpkin.

"There's never any ill will toward anybody in this particular sport," he said. "There are plenty of things that can go wrong on their own; you don't need to fabricate any others."

Megchelsen first met Marshall at the Alaska State Fair several years ago.

"I was elated to see him there because it's no fun growing by yourself," he said. "Dale coming into the picture is the best thing that ever could have happened for me because if you have no competition, really at some point you're going to say, 'Well, what's the point of growing here anymore?"

Ever since then, Megchelsen has been abiding by the hard-core pumpkin-grower mantra of, "You aren't growing them if you aren't blowing them."

"You've got to push it to the edge," he said. "You've got to grow them and push them right to the limit, but you've got to know where that limit is."

On Tuesday, Peak Oilfield Services came to Megchelsen's house in Nikiski and used a boom truck to remove the giant from the greenhouse. From there it was lowered into the back of a pickup truck and driven to Palmer for the Wednesday weigh-off, where Marshall was waiting with his monster pumpkin.

The world record was set last year: 1,810.5 pounds, owned by Chris Stevens at the Stillwater Harvestfest in Stillwater, Minn.

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