Just before Labor Day Weekend, when others his age might’ve posted end-of-summer party pics, 20-year-old Henry Swenson updated his Twitter:
“Time for a new profile pic,” he tweeted, posting a photo of himself with his 2021 Guinness World Record and the gourd that got him there: a 65.5 pound butternut squash.
This year’s crop has also yielded some giants, and the Gen Z hobby-farmer from Topsfield will bring his 850-pound orange pumpkin to the Vermont Giant Pumpkin Growers State Weigh Off at Sam Mazza’s Farm Market in Colchester, Vt., Sept. 17.
He’s saving his “beast” — a white pumpkin currently estimated at some 1,040 pounds — for the Topsfield Fair Sept. 30.
“It’s really addicting,” Swenson said of growing giant gourds. “Once you see a pumpkin grow 50 pounds in one day — it’s insane. It’s just really fun.”
Waking up to see a pumpkin “double in size from day to day” gives him a sense of achievement, said Swenson.
Neither his parents, his twin brother nor sister farm. (“I guess I got the green thumb.”) His passion for produce started when he went to the Topsfield Fair at 13. “I went into the arena where they have the weigh-off, saw the giant pumpkins, and immediately knew I wanted to grow one. I went online and came across a website dedicated to growing giant vegetables.”
Through the site, he connected with Woody Lancaster, “another grower in Topsfield, who mentored me for a few years. He’s been growing pumpkins for, like, 25 years. But the past three years now, I’ve been doing it myself.” (Lancaster, by the way, has placed at Topsfield a few times; he won in 2017 with a one-ton pumpkin: it tipped the scales at 2,003.5 pounds.)
Swenson entered his first Topsfield giant pumpkin contest at age 14.
Billed as the “oldest continuously running agricultural fair in America,” the fair’s roots trace back to 1818. The All New England Giant Pumpkin Weigh-Off began at Topsfield Fair in 1984, according to the fair’s website. That year, the winning pumpkin weighed 433 pounds.
Swenson has never won at Topsfield before —”It’s very competitive. One of the most competitive weigh-offs in country” — but for the young farmer, it’s not about outweighing the competition. It’s “about beating your own record.”
He grew his biggest pumpkin in 2020 — the year he graduated Masconomet Regional High School. That one weighed in at a whopping 1,184 pounds. He’s hoping to squash that record this year.
“I think I can do it,” he said. “It’s going to be a nail-biter, though.”
In recent years, he’s also entered squash and sunflowers in Topsfield. Because the weather was so dry this year, his butternut is “only 30 pounds,” he says. His sunflower stands now at 15 feet — though a few years ago, he grew one to 17′ 8.”
As for that world-record butternut, he ate it for Christmas dinner last year — it made enough to serve “about 100 people,” he estimated.
Giant pumpkins, though, are inedible, he said. “They have fungicides in them, fertilizers.”
So what does one do with 1,040 pounds of inedible pumpkin after a contest?
“I made a jack-o’-lantern out of one in 2019; that was 1,138 pounds. I used a hand-held saw.”
The process took half a day. The reward? A jack-o’-lantern so big, “I crawled inside.”
Because genetics are key to growing, a giant’s seeds can be sold to other growers, auctioned off, or used to plant next year’s entries, Swenson explained.
For example, his record-winning squash sprouted from seeds he bought off the previous Guinness Record holder from Minnesota, and ended up “beating him by 10 pounds,” he said. “Someone grew a 1,500-pound pumpkin off my seed last year in Indiana.”
Another key is soil. One tip: Neptune’s Harvest, an organic fish and seaweed fertilizer blend, based out of Gloucester. “Potassium helps build up the walls and make it thicker,” he said. “You want to make sure your soil’s on-point.”
Another tip: “I bury the vines, each leaf node. If you bury the whole vine, that helps the roots get more developed and brings more energy to the pumpkin.”
Farming isn’t the only aspect of Mother Nature that interests Swenson. He’s also a storm-chaser and amateur meteorologist, who predicts New England weather on Instagram, @henrysweatherchannel. His Twitter bio reads: “Weather is where it’s all at.” He hopes one day to be a broadcast meteorologist.
“I’ve been into meteorology since I was maybe 10,” he said, adding that he taught himself to read forecasting system models. “I just find it so fascinating.”