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Fat prizes for fat pumpkins

Organizers elsewhere try to top Half Moon Bay payout

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Posted: Thursday, September 27, 2012 1:18 pm

October is nearly here, and that means Half Moon Bay will soon be a magnet for the big crowds and maybe even the biggest pumpkin in the world. Every year, the biggest names in big pumpkin growers flock to town in hopes of winning the city’s acclaimed Safeway World Championship Pumpkin Weigh-Off, described by many as the “Super Bowl” of giant pumpkin competitions.

But the real question this year may not be who has the mightiest pumpkin, but rather where it will be weighed.

Every year, organizers here battle to entice top growers to lug their biggest and best pumpkins out to the coast. In a sort of competition among competitions, about 100 other weigh-offs across the country are nipping at the heels of Half Moon Bay, trying to sell their contest to growers as the best — and most profitable — place to weigh a prospective champ.

The Giant Pumpkin Commonwealth, the rule-setting organization for weigh-offs, specifically states that each giant pumpkin can only be entered in one contest. That rule leaves it up to each grower to decide which event makes the most sense.

This year, San Martin in Santa Clara County is making its play to eclipse the Half Moon Bay competition. Now entering its 22nd year, the Uesugi Farms Pumpkin Weigh-Off notched up its cash prizes this year to barely edge out the Half Moon Bay contest payout. The San Martin contest is offering $1 more per pound for first place.

Advertising on pumpkin-growing websites, Uesugi Farms co-owner Wendy Aiello has been urging top growers to bring their world-record contenders to her contest. Plenty of growers may think twice about sending their best pumpkins to Half Moon Bay if they see a bigger jackpot elsewhere, she said.

“We want that world-record pumpkin!” she cheered. “It would give us not only bragging rights, but it would put our community on the map.”

The contest between the weigh-offs is by the numbers. Last year, a 1,818-pound pumpkin from Quebec, Canada, shattered previous records, and contest organizers across the United States say it is only a matter of time before someone finds a way to grow one even bigger. Every contest wants to be the first to have a one-ton pumpkin, pointing out it would be a milestone that will live on for posterity.

With its eye on that record, Half Moon Bay organizers are offering a special $25,000 cash bonus for anyone who can break the one-ton mark. Uesugi is offering $30,000 for a world champion.

“It’s like the four-minute mile; it’s just a milestone,” said Tim Beeman, local pumpkin weigh-off organizer. “This is the Super Bowl of weigh-offs, and any event of its stature would want the top and the best prize.”

But some events draw champion growers by resting more on their reputation than a cash prize. Now entering its 106th year, the Circleville Pumpkin Show in Ohio regularly draws record-breaking pumpkins even though it offers a paltry $2,000 for first place.

“I know our prize money is less than other places, but everyone wants to be associated with our pumpkin show,” said Kurt Engel, Circleville pumpkin committee organizer. “I don’t know of anyone who has a longer legacy than us.”

Last year’s Half Moon Bay pumpkin winner, Leonardo Urena of Napa County, said most growers look for more than just money when they’re deciding which contest to enter. A regular competitor in Half Moon Bay, Urena says he likes the welcoming spirit of the city and how the local pumpkin contest benefits the community. The little touches also make Half Moon Bay stand out, he said, like the prepared lunch for the growers and the chance to mingle with the best in the world.

“Half Moon Bay is where I take my biggest every year no matter what,” he said. “It’s a really good community, and the weigh-off helps the town … myself, I like to see that.”

But the hefty cash prize offered each year does play a role, Urena admitted. If Half Moon Bay suddenly decided to cease its cash prizes, he might reconsider moving on. Giant pumpkin growing is not cheap, he said, noting that he spends around $2,000 a year on fertilizer and other materials to grow his champs.

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