GREENE, R.I. — In his years of growing giant pumpkins, Woody Lancaster has developed a tell, like a poker player who reveals his hand without knowing it. When he sees another giant pumpkin, he will, reflexively, make a small, dismissive gesture with his hand if he thinks he’s got it beat. It is known as the “Lancaster Wave.”
Lancaster has had much to wave at this year. He’s got an absolute monster growing in his backyard in Topsfield. But when he visited Ron Wallace’s pumpkin patch in Rhode Island last month and got a look at “The Freak II” and “The Pleasure Dome,” he made no such gesture. Instead, Lancaster drank enough Johnnie Walker Blue to need a ride home.
Since Aug. 19, when Lancaster and most of the other giant pumpkin growers of New England visited Wallace’s home in Greene as part of a patch tour, the gossip has been swirling: Is this the year? Is Ron Wallace going to be the first person to do what was unthinkable just a decade ago? Is he going to break the most sacred barrier in pumpkining? Does Ron Wallace have the elusive one-ton pumpkin?
In the world of competitive pumpkin growing, the one-ton pumpkin is a seminal thing, a milestone that is their equivalent of the four-minute mile or the sound barrier. It was only 12 years ago that the first 1,000-pound pumpkin was grown, and many thought 2,000 would never happen because a pumpkin’s walls couldn’t support it. But as weights continued to climb each year, the question became not if, but when.
Last week, a Globe reporter and photographer knocked on Wallace’s door to inquire about this mythic squash, and he basically said two things: He’s never doing another patch tour. And please leave. But he had a problem. You can’t exactly hide a pumpkin that is the size of a small car. Growers have been known to spy on one another using satellite photos. And Wallace’s pumpkins were clearly visible from the road, six absolutely gigantic orbs sitting in a dense network of vines and leaves that power their ridiculous growth. At peak, they can pack on between 30 and 40 pounds a day. Some say you can literally see them grow.
It was raining, and the three in the garden closest to the house were all covered in tarps — these were the big ones, including the two monsters in the back that everyone has been talking about.
After watching the Globe reporter and photographer checking out his pumpkins from the road, Wallace reemerged and told them they could have five minutes.
“I don’t do this for newspapers, or for publicity for Topsfield. I do this for the competition,” Wallace said. And now that everyone is talking about 2,000 pounds, things have gotten out of control. Even if he breaks the world record, which happens nearly every year as techniques improve and secrets are shared, if you don’t get a ton, it’s like you disappointed everyone.”
When fellow pumpkin growers toured the patch last month, with plenty of growing to be done, Wallace had two pumpkins that were significantly larger than Lancaster’s, and his has now grown to more than 1,600 pounds, according to the estimate charts.
But charts are not scales, and the one iron-clad law of giant pumpkining is that nothing means anything until a pumpkin makes it onto the scale. Anything can go wrong at any moment. There’s no telling what it looks like on the bottom. It could be rotted. There could be a crack. It could have a hole that would disqualify it (this is to prevent people from the pumpkin equivalent of doping by injecting them with water or lead). Or it could simply blow up with an audible pop. There are a million ways a pumpkin can go down.
And if you survive all of that, it could go light on the scales. It could be a “balloon” that doesn’t weigh what it has been measuring. Or the reverse could happen. There’s simply no way of knowing until you tear up the garden, cut the stem from the vine, and successfully hoist a pumpkin the size of a Mini Cooper onto a truck and get it to a fair.
Those who have danced near one ton in recent years seemed jinxed. No one wants another “Beast from the East” incident, which happened four years ago when a grower in Sharon thought he might have a one-ton pumpkin and let the media into his patch to see the “Beast,” only to find out he had been measuring it wrong.
There has been a lot of pressure on Wallace since the patch tour, tons of e-mails and phone calls from other growers. Some want advice or seeds; others are just growers playing head games with each other, trying to figure out where they stand as the fair season kicks off. They love to lie to each other about which weigh-off they’re taking their pumpkin to.
The pumpkin world is a close-knit one — they go on cruises together, host an annual gala in Niagara Falls where the year’s top grower gets the Orange Jacket – but the competition can be cut-throat. There are big bragging rights at stake, and this Friday at the Topsfield Fair, considered by many to be the world’s premier giant pumpkin weigh-in, there is a $10,000 bonus on the line for the first New England grower to break a ton, on top of the $5,500 they get for first place.
There are whispered stories of sabotage and espionage, plus many shouted arguments that break out over a million tiny things when they get to the weigh-ins. “There is a lot of pumpkin politics,” said George Hoomis, an Ipswich grower who runs the Topsfield weigh-off with his wife, Mary Ann.
And there are big interstate rivalries, especially between the “Rhode Island mafia” and the “New Hampshire secret-keepers,” which began years ago with the comment: “Smallest state, smallest pumpkins.” For all these reasons, most competitive pumpkin growers refer to it as a sport.
Wallace wasn’t saying much. He was simply trying to be polite and last the five minutes. Then his father came out of the house. Richard Wallace is a talker. As he sat on a patio, he looked out at the two monsters. He is the one who gave them their names, “The Pleasure Dome” and “The Freak II,” which came from the same seed as a pumpkin called “The Freak.” That pumpkin grew to more than 1,700 pounds last year before going down in August. He was cautiously optimistic that one of them, perhaps both of them, would smash the current world record of 1,818.5 pounds.
“We’ve got our foot on the throttle all the way to the end,” he said. “That’s the name of the game. But you never know. You’re growing a freak. It’s just not natural for a fruit to grow 1,000 pounds, let alone 2,000 pounds. I don’t breath easy until it’s on a vehicle.”
Growing a giant pumpkin is a labor of love with an emphasis on the labor. They require constant attention, must be bundled up in old comforters on cold nights, watered constantly, protected from skin-softening rain, babied to maturity. Growers become soil scientists, fertilizer philosphizers, seed sorcerers, pollination prognosticators, but they really live at the mercy of luck. Everyone has stories of fair-winners that weren’t. September is the cruelest month; that’s when disaster strikes just as the weigh-off season is beginning.
Ron Wallace is 46. He’s been growing competitively for 22 years, and is a big name in the game. He was the first to break 1,500 pounds. And now, he could make history again. But he’s not talking about it until the pumpkin hits the scale. As his father allowed the 5-minute interview to push to 25, Ron sat impatiently in his chair and listened to his father jinx him.
Then Richard invited the reporter and photographer into the patch and Ron’s face took on a panicked look. As Ron tried to reattach a sheet that had blown off “The Pleasure Dome,” blocking it from the rain — and the eyes of the journalists — Richard tapped the reporter on his arm and whispered in his ear.
“That one’s going to go over 2,000 pounds,” he said, proudly. “That’s a lot of meat right there.”