Anchorage grower wins Alaska State Fair pumpkin weigh-off

zhollander@adn.comAugust 27, 2013 

PALMER -- The small world of giant pumpkins in Alaska just got bigger.

The state's field of competitive growers -- all two of them -- squared off at the Alaska State Fair's Midnight Sun Giant Cabbage Weigh-Off on Tuesday.

Anchorage's Dale Marshall hauled in a pale orange 1,182-pound monster that edged out state record holder J.D. Megchelsen for the top prize.

Megchelsen's pumpkin actually weighed more -- 1,289 pounds, two pounds over his own record -- but a hole in the bottom disqualified the Nikiski grower's entry from the competition.

Marshall was modest in victory.

After all, he grew a monster 1,789-pound pumpkin two years ago that got disqualified for a small hole that extended into the inner cavity. That violates fair rules requiring structurally sound produce.

"J.D. had a bigger pumpkin," Marshall said. "I know what he's feeling."

But along with the two familiar giant pumpkin producers, a third name made her upstart debut -- a familiar name to fans of Alaska's monster produce scene.

Mardie Robb became the first woman in the state's giant pumpkin arena.

Robb runs Colony Greenhouse in Palmer with her husband, Scott. Yes, that Scott Robb. Fair royalty in a ball cap and glasses. The guy with seven world records for growing the biggest celery, kohlrabi, rutabaga, cauliflower, kale, turnip and green cabbage -- the 138-pound "Palmer Pachyderm" that won the fair last year.

But Scott Robb doesn't grow pumpkins.

That's his wife's department.

"This is mine to fail or succeed," Mardie Robb said Tuesday afternoon, wearing sparkly orange shoes and cap as the pumpkins arrived via pickup truck and trailer. "I can tap into all that knowledge, but I want to do this on my own merit."

Robb named her pumpkin "Miracle" because it cracked early in the season but kept growing anyway, leaving a jagged brown smile on its multi-colored face just below the stem.

The pumpkin thrived in the summer's heat. But Robb said she overwatered.

"I was loving her too much," she said. "The day she split, Scott found me in a heap of tears behind her."

On Tuesday, Robb brought her pumpkin to the fair just to see how much it weighed. She couldn't enter because of the crack.

She hoped for 360 pounds.

The scale settled at 430.5.

A crowd of about 100 people sitting on bleachers and leaning on blue cattle gates in the Farm Exhibits barn hooted. Green-hued "Pumpkin Fairies" cheered.

"I can't breathe!" Robb shouted, jumping up and down and whooping. "That's nothing like what I expected!!"

Really, it's kind of surprising massive pumpkins grow here at all.

Unlike cabbages and kohlrabi, pumpkins are a heat-loving fruit. It's only been in the last 10 years that anybody in Alaska has tried to grow giant ones. It takes about five years to get good at it, growers say. A greenhouse is essential. So too is a deep understanding of pollination and genetics.

The fair's first giant pumpkin topped the scales at just over 300 pounds.

"It's amazing now to see these coming in at over four times that," said Kathy Liska, the fair's crops department superintendent.

Marshall named his entry "Eva" in honor of his late mother, who died in December. He plans to display the giant gourd in front of his Sand Lake home.

Megchelsen knew he probably had a hole in his "Time Bandit" -- named for the "Deadliest Catch" crab boat and his hobby's habit of stealing hours -- about three weeks ago. That's when it stopped putting on 30 pounds a day.

He plans to extract the seeds from his pumpkin. There could be anywhere from zero to 900 inside.

"They're regular-size seeds," Megchelsen said.

The granddaddy of produce competitions is coming up. This year's annual Giant Cabbage Weigh-Off competition is scheduled to begin at 7 p.m. Friday.

The fair is providing a live link on the Web at www.alaskastatefair.org and on GCI Channel 1.

Reach Zaz Hollander at zhollander@adn.com or 257-4317.

 

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