When it came time to take his behemoth squash to the Central Coast Great Pumpkin Contest, Randy Pharr knew he’d need help.
“I had nine guys over here,” said Pharr, of Templeton. “We got it rolled up into a tarp — a mat — and I built a pallet for it. We got it up on the pallet, and then my neighbor came over with a forklift and put it in the back of the truck.”
“I got $750 for first place and bragging rights for the San Luis Obispo County record,” Pharr said.
The North County handyman began growing large pumpkins about six years ago. After he heard about a pumpkin-growing contest in Paso Robles, he attended a pumpkin seminar at the Farm Supply.
“My first year, I only had a 156-pounder,” he said. “And progressively, it got a little better.”
Before this year, his biggest pumpkin was last year’s 575 pounder — “but it got disqualified because it wasn’t orange enough,” he said.
A pumpkin contest does have rules, after all.
“If it’s green, then it’s a gourd,” he said.
This year, Pharr, who also has an 11½-foot sunflower, started out with seeds from past giant pumpkins in a greenhouse at the end of March. Disease thwarted one plant, but when frost was no longer a threat — around the second week of May — he planted his surviving seedling in the ground. On July 15 the seed became a flower that needed pollinating.
With all the soil tending, irrigating, watering, pruning and pollinating, Pharr said he pampered his pumpkin for about 300 hours.
“I put an hour a day into it on average,” he said.
By September, the plant died off and the future grand pooh-bah of pumpkins merely sat on the soil, waiting for its big day.
“I’d been doing measurements on it and guestimating the weight of it as it was going along,” Pharr said. Still, he didn’t know just how huge it was. “I thought I’d be lucky to get 800 pounds out of it.”
As the contest approached, however, his Goliath gourd was clearly a heavyweight contender.
“I was the first one to drop off, and I hung around for a while, waiting to see what other people were going to bring,” he said. “Usually you see them in the 600-pound range there a lot. But I was thinking that somebody else might pull a rabbit out of the hat this year. I knew I had the old county record beat, but I didn’t know if it would hold or not.”
Turns out, his pumpkin rolled over the competition.
“We were surprised because a lot of the growers did not have success with their pumpkins,” said Cara Crye, marketing coordinator for Farm Supply.
Normally, the contest features roughly 70 contestants, Crye said, but this year pests, water and fungus issues cut the entrants down to about 30, making Pharr’s plump pumpkin even more impressive.
“He must have had an optimal growing area there in North County,” Crye said.
The next largest pumpkin, grown by Bill Quirk of Goleta, was 499 pounds, followed by a 394-pound pumpkin brought in by Nipomo resident Rick Tibben.
Like a celebrity, Pharr’s pumpkin is currently on a mini-tour. Next week, Pharr will take it to a haunted house at the National Guard Armory in Atascadero. Then he’ll take it to a friend’s ranch in Pozo, where the pumpkin’s Cinderella ride will end with a bang.
“We’ll take a whole bunch of other pumpkins out there, fill them up with water and shoot them with a cannon,” Pharr said. “There will be pieces for about a 150-yard circle, and you’ll see the water column about 100 yards into the air.”
While growing a big pumpkin requires much effort, pumpkins can be bred for big things. Often seeds from hefty pumpkins like Pharr’s come from other giants.
In fact, Crye said, every year, Farm Supply asks Great Pumpkin contestants to donate some of their giant pumpkin seeds. Then Joe Sabol, director of outreach services at Cal Poly’s College of Agriculture, gets them started in a greenhouse, and eventually Farm Supply gives them away to the public, who in turn can attempt to grow their own Great Pumpkin.
“It’s a really fun community event,” Crye said.
Meanwhile, Pharr already has his sights on next year’s contest — and again he’s hoping for big things.
“There were a couple of mistakes I made,” he said. “So next year I’ll apply all the things I learned this year. I’ll put two plants in and hope for the best.”