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Growers raise giant pumpkins despite squashed festivals

By BILL LYNCH, The Charleston Gazette-Mail undefined

CULLODEN, W.Va. (AP) — Leaves are falling and the air is getting cooler, but the festivities of fall have been muffled, if not entirely muted.

The wave of fair and festival cancellations caused by the coronavirus pandemic have continued past the summer. There was no Forest Festival in Elkins, no Black Walnut Festival in Spencer and the West Virginia Pumpkin Festival in Milton was canceled.

Over the phone, Cindy Hinkle, the pumpkin festival president, sighed and said, “First time, after 30-some years. It was very sad for us.”

But what happened to the champion, giant-sized pumpkins — the pumpkins that weigh as much as small cars?

Chris Rodebaugh from Lewisburg was the Pumpkin Festival’s 2019 pumpkin champion. He won the festival’s largest pumpkin contest last year with a 1,384-pound pumpkin.

A family dentist, Rodebaugh said he was inspired to try growing his own giant pumpkin after a trip the State Fair of West Virginia.

“I always go,” he said. “I saw one that was 200 or 300 pounds and I thought that was pretty cool.”

He went online and researched what a gardener needed to do to grow that kind of a pumpkin.

“I really fell down the rabbit hole,” he said, laughing.

His first season, Rodebaugh grew a 1,550-pound pumpkin.

“And I thought, ‘Wow, I’m pretty good at this,'” he said.

Justin Conner, last year’s third-place grower from Culloden, said the giant pumpkins are fun to grow.

“My family gets a lot of joy in just watching them grow,” he said.

Conner and Rodebaugh begin their pumpkins in late April or May, which is ahead of when seeds for pie or jack-o’-lantern pumpkins are typically planted in July.

The giant pumpkins face the same sort of pests that trouble the smaller varieties — deer, groundhogs and the ravenous squash vine borer.

Conner uses a fence and pesticides, which helps with the borer. Rodebaugh said he tried hot pepper powder to keep the deer away. That only slowed them down, but he settled on an electric fence.

“That keeps them away just fine,” he said.

After the plants fruit, the pumpkins grow fast, both growers said.

How fast?

“This year, mine was growing 40 pounds a day at its peak,” Conner said. “You can actually go out and watch it grow. At peak, they’ll grow three, four, five inches a day.”

After the Pumpkin Festival was canceled in July, Conner said he and his family decided to keep growing their monster pumpkin.

At Labor Day, he said they had a real trophy winner.

“It was 980 pounds,” he laughed.

But then things took a turn for the worse. Not long after Labor Day, the area got a bunch of rain. The pumpkin soaked up the water like a sponge and split open.

“By then, it was too late for us to start anything else,” Conner said.

He probably would’ve had a hard time keeping up with growing the pumpkin anyway. In early September, Conner caught COVID-19.

“I had a pretty bad case,” he said. “I was away from work for 38 days.”

Conner only recently returned to work.

Rodebaugh had trouble this year, too. He said the weather worked against him and he really didn’t have his soil fixed. His best pumpkins for this year failed, but he did manage to grow a 955-pound green squash, which is a state record.

“And that’s pretty cool,” he said.

Both growers said they would try again next year.

Conner has already cleared the plot where his family will raise the next monster pumpkin and planted a cover crop for the winter.

He has high hopes.

Rodebaugh does, too.

“I’m happy about the squash and I have the state record for the biggest carrot, the state record for the tallest sunflower and the biggest sunflower head,” he said. “These are all accolades — hooray, but nothing compares to the pumpkin.

“It’s the Super Bowl.”

For those who didn’t grow their own pumpkins (giant or otherwise), farmers markets — including the Capitol Market in Charleston — are practically overrun with them.

JoAnna Hays at Ed & Ellen’s at the market said people have been buying up a lot of what they put out, particularly the painted pumpkins, which she said are coated to last far longer than a raw pumpkin.

Ron Crihfield of Crihfield Farms said it’s been a bit slower for him, but he’s still selling a lot of produce.

“People are buying some of the carnival-type pumpkins,” he offered.

Crihfield expected pumpkin traffic to pick up and soon.

Shrewd pumpkin pickers will pluck up the best of the lot the first or second weekend in October, the grower said, but last weekend’s rains probably reduced the crowds.

There are still good pumpkins, but they won’t last.

Pumpkins will keep for weeks, as long as you don’t carve into them or drop a gourd hard on the ground. Once the skin of the pumpkin is cut or the flesh bruised, it will begin to rot.

The West Virginia Pumpkin Festival will return to Milton, next year — at least, organizers hope to.

“We started planning for next year just as soon as we had to cancel for this year,” Hinkle said. “We hope to be back a little bigger than before.”