Pumpkin grower surprised to win
By Bob Jackson
After four years of trying, Jeff Zoellner said he finally felt like he had grown a pumpkin worthy of making the long haul to Canfield from western Ohio to go head-to-head with giants of the pumpkin-growing world.
Turns out, his was better than all the rest at the 16th annual Ohio Valley Giant Pumpkin Growers weigh-off, tipping the scales at a whopping 1,663 pounds. He took top prize during Saturday’s contest at Parks Garden Center in Canfield Township.
“Oh, I am very surprised,” a jubilant Zoellner said after he watched his last challenger come up short. “These guys who come here are like my idols, and I was just hoping to compete.”
Zoellner and his wife, Cathy, are from Clayton, just northwest of Dayton. Even though there are other pumpkin weigh-offs closer to their home, they drove nearly five hours to get here for the competition, which draws growers of giant pumpkins from all over the state.
“This is the most prestigious weigh-off in the country, and I finally had a pumpkin worthy of it,” Zoellner said, explaining why they made the cross-state drive to get here. “The people who grow here are the best.”
For his winning effort, Zoellner was awarded $5,000 and now has bragging rights for the next year.
The OVGPG is a local site for the Great Pumpkin Commonwealth, which has 80 weigh-offs every year, with the heaviest among them recognized as the world record. Last year’s world-record pumpkin was grown by Christy Harp of Massillon and came out of the local weigh-off.
Even though she was the defending champion, Harp did not grow a pumpkin this year because she was busy raising something else – her son, Blaine, born in July. Thankfully, she said, her propensity for producing giants was limited to the pumpkin patch. Blaine weighed in at a manageable 8 pounds, 11 ounces.
Still, her record of 1,725 pounds stood at the end of the day, although Harp said she won’t be surprised to see it fall at some point this year.
Zoellner said he got into the pumpkin-growing hobby four years ago because his wife wanted pumpkins for Halloween. So instead of heading off to the store to buy some, they decided to grow their own.
“The next thing I knew, he was growing these huge things,” Cathy said, laughing. “And here we are.”
Gary Adams also drove a long way to put a pumpkin on the scale at the local contest and wound up with a top-10 finish. His pumpkin, which grew more flat than round – known in giant-pumpkin circles as a wheel – weighed in at 1,471 pounds.
Adams, who lives near Syracuse, N.Y., said he also wanted to come here and compete because of this area’s reputation for having the best growers in country.
He was pleased with the weight of his entry and said he was concerned because wheel-shaped pumpkins often have a tendency to split during the growing process, which makes them ineligible for competition.
Tim Parks, owner of the garden center and a director of the OVGPG, said most growers start between the third week of April and the first week of May, planting the seeds and hoping to end up with a pumpkin the size of a boulder in two to three months.
Some pumpkins are weighed in the field, but most growers rely on measuring the great gourds, then referring to a chart to estimate their weight, said Dave Stelts of Edinburg, Pa., president of OVGPG. Though overall size helps, the critical component of a blue-ribbon pumpkin is its thickness, Stelts said.
His entry this year was estimated at about 1,200 pounds, but it actually weighed 1,495 pounds, landing in the top five.
Based on their size, some of Saturday’s entries were expected to challenge Harp’s record, although none ended up coming close. Still, several growers walked away with personal- best records at the end of the day.
Bill Korleski of Canfield, 79, and his wife, Claire, 77, were among the 300 or so people who came out Saturday to watch the events and said they come every fall.
“The gigantic size of these things is just impressive,” said Bill. “I can’t imagine the tremendous care that they must take to grow.”
The pumpkins are so heavy that they had to be shuttled in and out of the staging area on forklifts and lifted on and off the scale with a giant hoist. Harp said they are lifted out of the fields the same way and are transported on pallets covered with carpeting or some sort of padding to help prevent them from cracking.
Stelts said growers are always looking for new ways to help grow larger, heavier pumpkins and are generally eager to share their innovations with others. In 1995, the local winning entry weighed 816 pounds, with weights increasing consistently over the years leading up to last year’s world record.
“We might see an 1,800-pounder somewhere this year, but I think we’re probably still five years or so away from 2,000 pounds,” Stelts said.