It’s a great pumpkin

Published 12:31 pm Saturday, September 24, 2016

Ricky Atkins of Blackhead Signpost Road in Courtland has been growing large produce crops as a hobby since his late teens, and hopes to win this year’s State Fair “Great Pumpkin Contest” on Saturday, with an entry he estimates to weigh at least 1,000 pounds.
“Mine is about 355 inches (in diameter) and 1,050 pounds on the Over-The-Top (OTT) scale as defined by Team Pumpkin’s 2013 standards, used nationally in state fairs across the U.S.,” Atkins said. “Last year I had a 42-pound cantaloupe, which took the state record last year.”
Atkins’ entire pumpkin patch, located in his sizable back yard, grew from four individual seeds he planted earlier this year, which is descended from Beni Meier’s 2,300-pound pumpkin that took the Guiness World Record as the world’s heaviest pumpkin in Ludwigsburg, Germany, in October 2014.
But, according to Atkins, growing the largest possible pumpkin involves a lot more than just purchasing seeds from a record-breaking progenitor. Each crop must receive the perfect amount of water — too much, and the pumpkin’s insides will outgrow the shell, resulting in cracks and possibly rotting.
“If you don’t keep it dry, it’ll rot,” Atkins said, gesturing to the series of portable fans he had placed around his remaining crops. “[Giant pumpkins] will absorb 100 gallons of water per day, so with all the rain we’ve been having, I thought I’d lose some.”
A pumpkin’s growth can by stunted from receiving too little water as well. To prevent this from occuring, Atkins cuts off all the smaller pumpkins so the main roots pump all the water in the ground into the ones on which he decides to focus his efforts.
Equally important is keeping pests away. Atkins sprays his pumpkins at least once per week with organic fertilizers and natural pesticides he mail-orders from Seattle, Washington.
“I probably have $1,500 in organic fertilizer,” he said.
Transporting a 1,000-plus-pound pumpkin to the state fair can be challenging as well, but it’s an issue that Atkins is confident he has resolved thanks to his crane-like lifting ring, which essentially forms a net around the pumpkin and allows him to hoist it into the back of his pickup truck.
He then uses a series of straps run through swimming noodles to prevent the pumpkins from flying off the truck bed mid-transport while not risking the straps cutting into the pumpkins.
When not exhibiting his pumpkins and other large crops in county and state fairs, Atkins often sells them to a farm up in Centreville for their Fall Festival. If the pumpkins are not otherwise used or sold, they are made part of the Pumpkin Madness event the first weekend after Halloween, where they are dropped from high cranes in front of many spectators.
Judging for the pumpkin category during the fair begins at noon today, Sept. 24.