In a beloved seasonal children's story, a little boy forgoes his night of trick-or-treating for the possibility of meeting the Great Pumpkin, a legendary figure traveling the world on Halloween seeking out the most sincere pumpkin patches. If there is a Great Pumpkin, chances are he'll be seen in western Belmont County. Not only is it the home of the Barnesville Pumpkin Festival, but the pumpkin growers here are certainly very sincere.
Take, for instance, Todd Skinner of Barnesville. Twenty years ago, his brother convinced him to try growing big pumpkins, competitive style, weighing several hundred pounds. "Yeah, he did it for about two years, and I'm still doing it," Skinner laughs.
"Doing it" is an understatement. Skinner holds four "King Pumpkin" titles from the nationally known Barnesville Pumpkin Festival. In 2011, he won with his 1,311 pound entry; in 2008 with a 1,175 pound pumpkin; in 2004 with a 909 pounder; in 2000, his 1,109 pound entry took the title.
Big pumpkins like Todd Skinner’s 2011 King Pumpkin winner are highlights of festivals like the Barnesville Pumpkin Festival. Here, festival queen Autumn Kessler takes a turn at posing with the King.
What goes into producing an oversized squash? Skinner spends most of the winter planning, doing research on seeds and genetics. He says the pumpkin variety is the Atlantic Giant, but the variables are in the cross pollination between two specific pumpkins that have desirable traits. He also does soil tests during the winter to figure out what nutrients he'll need to balance out for optimum growth.
In the spring, Skinner does some composting and adds a combination of nutrients and fertilizer to the soil to get a pH balance of 6.8 to 7, nearly neutral. He likes to keep the additives organic because it keeps the microbes and soil healthier - liquid calcium, seaweed and chemical potassium.
At the end of April, Skinner starts three to six plants in the house, keeping them in small hot houses at 85 degrees for germination. Two weeks later he plants each outside in its own 30 foot by 22 foot plot. They are covered by individual "greenhouses" to ward off cold night temperatures and protect the young sprouts. During the day, Skinner's wife Donna opens the doors on the sides of the greenhouses to keep the plants from getting too warm and allow for airflow.
Once the vines start to grow, Skinner prunes and trains them, and Donna hand pollinates the blossoms. Hand pollination is a tricky and time-sensitive process. Skinner grows one pumpkin per plant, so when one appears, he buries the vines and stabilizes the plant. The rest of the summer is spent watching for vine boring bugs, soil disease and plant diseases.
"You can see why you don't grow a lot of these," he notes. "I come home from work and put an average of four hours more in on the pumpkins." Just the water alone is a huge task. Each plant takes between 60 and 70 gallons of water per day during a normal year. He says that he'd rather see a dry summer than a wet one, though, because the chances of disease increase substantially with more rain.
In all, Skinner's "hobby" costs him between $800 and $1,000 per plant per year with seeds, fertilizers, nutrients and water. He says he "sees them all the way through," though, while other growers choose one pumpkin as their focus.
The ones that don't make it to "King Pumpkin" size are usually sold or donated to charitable causes. He recalls one group traveling up from Florida to bring one of his pumpkins back for a children's home fundraiser, and a man took one to Cleveland for a children's hospital fundraiser.
A few miles away near Barkcamp State Park in Belmont, Scott Stenger is setting out "Jack-o-Lantern" pumpkins on the lawn from his first pumpkin patch. Looking at the bright orange orbs in all shapes and sizes, Stenger says planning for this sideline to his mother's farm started over the winter, also.
"It was my girlfriend Jen's idea," he says. "She was saying that there isn't really a place out here to pick pumpkins as a family activity. So we kicked the idea around and decided to try it."
Stenger bought five pounds of seeds and planted 2.5 acres. "I think farming's in my blood,"explaining that his great-grandfather and grandfather grew vegetables on a family farm in Clarington and sold them at markets in Wheeling. He helps his mother take care of 60 acres with 17 dairy cows, eight donkeys, a family vegetable garden and some chickens. Now the pumpkin patch has become a family affair. "I like to see my nieces and nephews and Jen's daughters all carrying pumpkins and having fun," he adds. "My girlfriend, my mom, my sister, my friends - everyone's involved."
The original concept was a "pick your own" patch, but Stenger is going to reconfigure the area with more space and try that next year. He doesn't plan on planting any competition big pumpkins, though, saying, "I have enough to do."
For now, the Pumpkin Patch at Stenger's farm is open Saturdays from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Sundays from noon to 5 p.m. until the last weekend in October.
As are all crops, pumpkins are at the mercy of Mother Nature. Skinner says the July storm wiped out his pumpkin patch, and he won't have an entry vying for this year's "King Pumpkin." Stenger says he thought his patch was touch and go for a while after it got dry, but the vines and pumpkins pulled through.
"There's a lot of tending to them, like having two full time jobs for six months of the year," notes Skinner, adding with a smile, "but I don't know if I'd know what to do with myself in the summer without the pumpkins."
What about the extra work for Stenger on top of his job and work on the farm? "It's worth it to see all the little kids happy, carrying their pumpkins around."
The Great Pumpkin would be hard-pressed to find patches with more sincerity than these.