Massive world record-breaking pumpkin grown in Sumner

by: Kenny Ocker, the News Tribune Updated:

Joel Holland has been growing giant pumpkins for more than three decades, and his faithful tractor has hauled them all.

But when the Sumner man went to load the behemoth he grew this year into the bed of his 3/4-ton truck Friday, it wouldn’t move.

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“My tractor, which previously has handled 1,700 pounds, 1,800 pounds, wouldn’t even budge this one off the ground,” Holland said.

An emergency commercial forklift was rented and the truck was on its way to Half Moon Bay, California, for the World Championship Pumpkin Weigh-Off.

Joel Holland has been growing giant pumpkins for more than three decades, and his faithful tractor has hauled them all.

But when the Sumner man went to load the behemoth he grew this year into the bed of his 3/4-ton truck Friday, it wouldn’t move.

“My tractor, which previously has handled 1,700 pounds, 1,800 pounds, wouldn’t even budge this one off the ground,” Holland said.

An emergency commercial forklift was rented and the truck was on its way to Half Moon Bay, California, for the World Championship Pumpkin Weigh-Off.

When the giant gourd hit the scale Monday, the 2,363-pound pumpkin set a world record for the largest ever grown outdoors and the largest ever grown in North America. He won the competition and its $7-per-pound grand prize, which came out to $16,541.

The retired Puyallup Fire Department battalion chief was confident that this year’s pumpkin would do well at the competition, which he’s won six times before.

“This one just grew spectacularly fast all season long,” he said.

All the weather conditions were perfect since the plant was pollinated in late June: warm days, mild nights and a whole lot of sunshine.

“The 55 days without rain didn’t hurt us,” Holland said. “We’d rather have the sunshine. We can apply the water but we can’t really duplicate the sunshine.”

The Sumner High School alumnus became interested in growing giant pumpkins after seeing them at the Puyallup Fair. So he started growing them the next year and won the fair’s competition.

It was a small hobby at first — well, as small as giant pumpkin competitions can be — but it grew into something more in time.

In 1992, Holland went to the Half Moon Bay competition for the first time, and he set his first world record that year, too.

Each time he and his wife, Mari Lou, have gone down to California for the competition, they’ve loaded their prized pumpkin into the back of his pickup truck.

This year’s pumpkin had just half an inch of clearance on each side of the truck bed after it was fit in above the wheel wells. To keep as much weight in the pumpkin on the two-day trip as possible, Holland covers it with wet sheets and blankets, then wraps a light-colored tarp around it, then drives the speed limit (or even under it) the whole way. He keeps about three feet of vine on each side of the stem, which he then soaks in gallon jugs of water that he fills several times during the trip.

“We’ve done it a lot and never had the pumpkin damaged en route,” Holland said.

The bigger threat for the pumpkins is splitting and cracking early in the growing process. The skin toughens as they grow, so they’re pretty rugged by the time they’re picked.

Each plant takes up 1,000 square feet of land or more and is hand-pollinated in late June so its lineage can be more easily tracked.

“It’s quite amazing how fast it grows,” Holland said: A pumpkin goes from being pollinated to harvest in about 90 days.

For the 2,363-pound pumpkin pulled from his patch, that means it grew more than 25 pounds a day, even during its formative moments and final slow days before it was picked.

During its fastest-growing two-week period in late July and early August, the pumpkin grew about 40 pounds and 6 inches per day.

At his peak, Holland grew a dozen giant pumpkins or more each year, but at 68, he’s tapered that down to six this year. One of those is still taken to the fair in Puyallup each year.

Another of the six was taken to the Elysian Brewing Co.’s Great Pumpkin Beer Festival in Seattle last month, where it won and was used as a vessel for four kegs’ worth of pumpkin beer.

“They used to put the tap into the pumpkin itself,” Holland said. “That was too slow, so they just make a big hole in the butt of the pumpkin and pass pitchers underneath it as fast as they can as beer gushes out.”

The record pumpkin will be shipped to New York City, where it will be on display at the New York Botanical Garden and will make an appearance with Holland on “Live with Kelly and Ryan.”

After that, Holland will harvest its seeds and the great pumpkin will either be turned into animal feed or composted.

Olympia’s Cindy Tobeck finished second at the Half Moon Bay competition Monday with a 2,002-pound pumpkin she dubbed “The Death Star,” and Tumwater’s Jeff Uhlmeyer finished third with one that came in at 1,927 pounds.

But Holland, despite having grown hundreds of huge pumpkins, has never named any of them.

After the weigh-in, someone suggested he name the pumpkin “Luke Skywalker” after the “Star Wars” hero who destroyed the Death Star.

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