The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A car-sized pumpkin would have won the ‘Super Bowl’ of pumpkin growing. There was just one tiny thing wrong.

Mike Schmit of Wisconsin stands next to the 2,520-pound pumpkin he grew this year. Schmit, 35, intended to enter the pumpkin in competition, but a disqualifying crack emerged as it was growing.
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Some who seek to push the bounds of what’s possible try to build the tallest skyscraper. Some strive to run 100 meters in less than 9.5 seconds or a marathon in under two hours. Some journey into the unknown outreaches of space.

Mike Schmit grows pumpkins. Really, really big pumpkins.

Schmit, a 35-year-old cheese plant worker from Markesan, Wis., grew a 2,520-pound pumpkin over the past several months, making it, in all likelihood, the largest in the country this year and second largest in the world — runner-up only to a 2,703-pound specimen grown in Italy.

There was just one problem: Schmit’s pumpkin didn’t count. A crack the size of a fingernail emerged in early September, disqualifying it from all competitions.

Schmit’s pumpkin would have easily won this year’s Safeway World Championship Pumpkin Weigh-Off, billed as the “Super Bowl” of competitive pumpkin growing. As it turned out, Jeff Uhlmeyer of Olympia, Wash., and his 2,191-pounder bagged the top spot on Oct. 11 and the $19,719 in prize money that came with it. With the winning pumpkin earning $9 per pound, Schmit’s would have been worth $22,680 if it had stayed whole and he’d taken it the nearly 2,200 miles to Half Moon Bay, a seaside town south of San Francisco.

“If it was definitely in a good shape … I would definitely have taken it out to California,” Schmit told The Washington Post.

Alas, the pumpkin that his mother named “Mattie” after Schmit’s great-great-grandmother was not in good shape, so he’ll have to wait at least one more year in his ongoing quest to grow the biggest pumpkin the world has ever seen.

Schmit doesn’t remember exactly how he first learned there were people in the world who competed to grow the largest pumpkin. Maybe it was a clickbait kind of article, he said. After he did, he spent the next several years casually keeping tabs on how big the pumpkins were in a given year and if one of them had set a record. Finally, in 2016, he gave it a go and found instant success, growing a 2,106-pound pumpkin — the third largest in the country that year — and earning Rookie of the Year honors from the Great Pumpkin Commonwealth, the worldwide governing body of competitive pumpkin growing.

“It was just to kind of see if I could do it. I thought it was … really impressive to be able to see something grow that big and in one season. It almost seemed kind of out of this world.”

Schmit can’t easily explain what motivates him. But he compared his mind-set to that of racecar drivers. They’re constantly trying to go just a little bit faster than their previous times, everyone else’s previous times and all the other drivers on the track with them — all at the same time.

That’s what Schmit said he’s doing, he said, except with pumpkins.

“It's just kind of a pushing-the-limits type of thing, in a weird kind of way,” he said.

Schmit started his most recent campaign at the beginning of the year, months before he planted anything, by researching which seeds he would use. He settled on those from a previous effort — a 2,261-pound specimen he grew in 2019.

He planted them in mid-April in one-gallon pots, then transferred the seedlings to his greenhouses, where heating cables raise the soil temperature to between 45 to 50 degrees. An electric heater running overnight kept the air temperature between 60 and 70 degrees at a time when, outside, it can drop below freezing.

Schmit pollinated the plant’s female flowers on June 17. His plant didn’t produce enough viable male flowers, so he got some from a neighbor, who’d grown a plant using seeds from another of Schmit’s past pumpkins, a 1,083-pounder from 2020.

In the first few weeks, the pumpkin didn’t grow much, starting out smaller than a golf ball and swelling to the size of a basketball around the 20-day mark.

After that, it exploded. Mattie was gaining an average of 27 pounds a day in mid-July, hitting 292 pounds on the 18th. A week later, it was swelling by 45 pounds daily and nearing 700 pounds. By the beginning of August, Mattie was adding more than 51 pounds and had topped the 1,000-pound mark, fueled by 150 gallons of water a day.

Mattie’s biggest weight gain in 24 hours: 53 pounds.

“You can literally almost see them grow,” Schmit said.

All the while, Schmit was checking water and fertilizer levels, trying to hit a Goldilocks range. Too much water rots out the roots, but too little deprives them of what they need to keep “getting the big gains.” Same with fertilizers — growers need to give the pumpkin enough nutrients to maximize growth but not so much that the salt-based fertilizer restricts the pumpkin from taking in water.

“We get pretty crazy, you know, whatever we can do to gain some weight,” Schmit said.

Others do more. Schmit mainly grows outside, but some have built 10,000-square-foot greenhouses to shield and nurture their pumpkins, allowing them to control temperatures and pump carbon dioxide into the air, further fueling plant growth.

“It can get kind of carried away,” he said.

Growers also employ a little strategy during the end game. The main weigh-offs are staggered over some four weeks from mid-September to mid-October, forcing growers to make a choice: Do they cut their pumpkin and take it to an early weigh-off that might have fewer competitors? Or do they let it ride, putting on more weight each day, and then pit it against heavier pumpkins at one of the later competitions?

“You don’t know, and everyone’s always trying to play the game of, you know, not telling people what they got or fibbing to … try to get people to go to different weigh-offs.”

Growers who are scared their sagging pumpkins might crack or cave in sometimes rush them to early weigh-offs. For Schmit, the issue was moot. By the time weigh-offs started, his pumpkin had cracked and was disqualified. Great Pumpkin Commonwealth rules disqualify any pumpkins with breaches into their cavities because such openings could allow unscrupulous growers to cheat by putting weights inside, Schmit said.

Even if Mattie had made it to mid-September but looked like it might not survive much longer, Schmit said he wouldn’t have cut and run to one of the earlier competitions. For him, growing pumpkins isn’t about winning, he said. It’s about growing the biggest pumpkin you possibly can. A lot of growers share that mind-set, Schmit said. He called the pumpkin-growing community “competitive” but quickly added that “it’s a friendly competitive” because while each grower seeks individual success, they also realize they share a mission.

“We’re all just along that same kind of goal of like ‘How big can we get these things?’ ”

Bigger than ever before. The winning pumpkin of the inaugural 1974 weigh-off in Half Moon Bay was a 132-pound pumpkin. The average winner in the 1980s weighed 429 pounds, a number that jumped to 782 pounds in the ’90s and 1,270 pounds in the 2000s.

The New York Times published a story in 2011 with the headline “The Race to Grow the One-Ton Pumpkin,” noting that the world record at the time was 1,810 pounds. That race ended the next year with a 2,009-pounder. Since then, record after record has fallen as growers discovered new techniques and refined old ones. The world record fell most recently just last month when Stefano Cutrupi, a farmer from Tuscany in Italy, grew one that weighed 2,703 pounds.

Schmit knows he’ll try to beat Cutrupi — or whoever holds the record — but he’s not sure that’ll be next year. Many have been cajoling him, saying he’s so close. But it takes a lot of work, about 10 hours a week per pumpkin at the peak of the growing season, which meant Schmit was logging 30 hours at one point. That’s on top of his full-time overnight job at the cheese plant.

“These things just don’t happen,” he said. “You’ve got to make it happen.”

Even if he doesn’t grow, he’ll be laying the groundwork for the future by researching different breeds and new techniques. He’s also considering making YouTube videos to teach casual gardeners how they can grow big pumpkins that top 500 or even 1,000 pounds without putting in the kind of work or using the esoteric techniques needed to break records.

“Unfortunately, we scare a lot of people off with how … crazy we do stuff,” he said. “ … You don’t have to try and break the world record, state record.

“You can just have fun and draw a nice pumpkin in your backyard and display and be proud of it,” he said.

But for Schmit himself, that’s not good enough, and, whether it’s next year or later, he said he’ll eventually try to grow the biggest pumpkin the world has ever seen.