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Giant pumpkins grow side businesses

Pumpkin go-karts, seed sales, sponsors help pay bills

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Posted: Thursday, October 4, 2012 10:29 am

How much money is a giant pumpkin really worth?

The answer’s easy in Half Moon Bay, home of the Safeway World Championship Pumpkin Weigh-Off, which takes place on Monday. A first-place pumpkin nets $6 per pound; second place wins $2,000; third place gets $1,500, and so on. This year organizers added a bonus of $25,000 for a world-record pumpkin.

But prize money is only one side of the equation, according to champion growers who say a humongous gourd can turn a profit in a number of other ways. Frantic to balance the hefty costs of cultivating colossal produce, growers say they’ve become inventive at finding ways to avoid breaking the bank as they’re breaking the scales with oversized pumpkins.

Many farmers make extra money by selling, or renting, their giants on the side to display at private parties, hotels or Halloween festivals. Any huge pumpkin surpassing 1,000 pounds could fetch hundreds of dollars, said former Half Moon Bay champion Joel Holland. But if that pumpkin wins a top prize at a premier contest, such as Half Moon Bay’s, then the value skyrockets.

For years, champion pumpkins have received the red-carpet treatment from major television networks. The ABC network has flown the top three pumpkins and their growers to New York City to be featured on its daytime talk shows, reportedly paying the top grower $10,000 for the exclusive.

A number of contests nationwide have also begun offering alternative ways for growers to sell off their undersized giants — the fat pumpkins that weigh hundreds of pounds, but still don’t have a chance at winning a prize. At the Elk Grove Giant Pumpkin Festival, organizers pay growers about $300 for each giant pumpkin, which are then cut in half, hollowed out and transformed into paddle boats. For years now, the Central Valley festival has hosted a pumpkin boat race as a side attraction to its weigh-off.

A festival in New Bremen, Ohio, has recently taken this idea farther by buying giant pumpkins to convert into go-karts for a race through town.

Giant-pumpkin growing is no cheap hobby, and top growers say the rule of thumb is each plant will cost about $1,000 in fertilizer, water and other supplies. That cost doesn’t account for the hours of stress and labor that go into each plant.

Iowa grower Don Young, who won the 2009 Half Moon Bay weigh-off, says he has since lined up 11 sponsorships from companies that sell specially made fish fertilizers, growth products and sprinkler systems. One laboratory in Idaho offered him free soil-testing to ensure his pumpkins were getting an abundance of nutrients. Young also made news that year by selling his 1,658-pound pumpkin to the “Late Night with Conan O’Brien” television show. The pumpkin ended up being smashed to pulp on live television by the monster truck “Gravedigger.”

Selling seeds has been a lucrative side business since the 1970s, when the Atlantic Giant strain first catapulted pumpkin weigh-offs into super-heavyweight stardom. Today, many growers consider the seeds worth their weight in gold, and they say it’s a deal-breaker if they can’t harvest them when they sell a pumpkin.

“We always get the seeds back,” Holland emphasized. “The record for a single seed sold in auction has been in the neighborhood of $1,000.”

Usually, the seeds sell for far less. Holland runs a side business, selling instructional DVDs on giant-pumpkin growing for $30 apiece. That’s a bargain, he said, because each video comes with four seeds to get his customers started.

Without a doubt, more money is at stake this year than ever before. All eyes in the competitive growing circuit this year were watching whether any pumpkin would break the one-ton threshold. Hoping to make history, the organizers of the Half Moon Bay competition offered a special $25,000 “mega-prize” to anyone who presents the first one-ton pumpkin. But that record was broken on Saturday in Topsfield, Mass., when a giant tipped the scales at 2,009 pounds.

Despite the large amounts of money being put forward, competitive growers say they barely turn a profit, given all the costs. Even though he’s won plenty of giant prize checks, Young says he’s evened out his costs at best when he considers all the bad years. Looking at this patch this year, his 10 giant hopefuls all came out undersized from an unbearably dry and hot summer. Ultimately, trying to grow the biggest pumpkin is still just a hobby, he said.

“It’s hard to make a living at it. I don’t think anyone does,” he said. “Even if you win, you barely cover your expenses. And if you have a bad year, then it’s just a loss.”

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