The winning Big Pumpkin at this year’s Iowa State Fair clocked in at 1,323 pounds. It was the first year in the history of the Iowa State Fair that the Big Pumpkin outweighed the Big Boar, which weighed a mere 1,022 pounds. Kaufmann Mercantile got a chance to chat with Dan Carlson, one of the winning pumpkins growers to discuss all things big and pumpkin. Carlson, who joined forces with his growing partner, Marc Petersen, in 2004 (both hail from Clinton, Iowa), has been growing big pumpkins since 1992.
Kaufmann Mercantile: What kind of pumpkin grows to be 1,323 pounds, anyway?
Dan Carlson: It’s a Dill’s Atlantic Giant – or just ‘Atlantic Giant’. Howard Dill is the guy who developed the seed way back in the sixties, I think.
KM: How do you grow it?
DC: Basically you grow a plant for two months, and then you get a pumpkin started by hopefully early June, and then you got the month of June and July, and then you got August to get it as big as you can possibly get it. And at that point… well, this fruit that won this year was 65 days old.
KM: Do you live on a farm?
DC: Nope, I live in town. My pumpkin patch is in the empty lot next to my house.
KM: When you wake up in the morning, do you go straight out to your pumpkins to see how much weight they’ve put on in the night?
DC: [This year's winning pumpkin] put on about 950 pounds in the month of July. With 31 days in July, it averaged about 31 – 32 pounds a day. That’s a pretty good grower.
KM: Will you harvest the seeds from this pumpkin for next year or will you buy new seeds?
DC: Nope, I’ve never bought a seed and I’ve never sold a seed. I usually give them away for those who want to try it.
KM: Nice. So this year’s seed? Where did it come from?
DC: This particular seed that we grew this year was from our 1370-pounder that had been attacked by a groundhog two years earlier…a groundhog had come in and started eating it and – yeah, pretty much cost us a good pumpkin there. That was 2008. Oh well, that’s the way it goes sometimes. Pretty much if it can go wrong, you pretty much experience it – but that’s how it goes in the pumpkin world.
KM: What else has gone wrong in the pumpkin world?
DC: I’ve had ‘em blow up, I’ve had ‘em split – hail. Hail is hard as hell on ‘em, let me tell you.
KM: How do they blow up?
DC: They grow too fast and blow up on one side. You’re growing a freak of nature that’s about as fragile as an egg. You’re going against all odds, and a lot of stuff goes wrong.
KM: Do you ever name your pumpkins?
DC: Aw years ago maybe, but you don’t want to get too friendly with them, because they can disappoint you so quickly.
KM: What are your secrets to success?
DC: Well, one of them is that you gotta have good seeds. But another one is you gotta have nice, fertile soil and we use nothing but natural stuff. We get our manure from the Blue Hill Dairy in Andover. They got some of the best crap in eastern Iowa, let me tell ya. We use manure, leaves in the fall, and we get all that to break down – we run a soil test to make sure the Ph level is where we’d like to see it, but as far as putting chemical 10/10/10 or 20/20/20 – I haven’t put a chemical like that on my patch for probably ten years now. I do spray for a couple of bugs that if I didn’t spray, they’d kill me – but other than that, I don’t use anything I don’t have to use. We’re not totally organic, but we try to be as organic as possible, and the pumpkins really seem to like it.
KM: Can you imagine if a boar grew to that size in 65 days?
DC: Yeah, I don’t think anything in the world puts on 40 pounds in 24 hours – or 50 pounds. We’ve had them put on as much as 60 pounds in 24 hours, but those are the ones that blow up.
KM: Have you ever had a pumpkin come out looking like someone you know, or something?
DC: I can’t tell you what my pumpkin kind of looked like this year.
KM: C’mon. What?
DC: Did you notice that lump on the one side that stuck out?
KM: I’ll have to study my photograph, because I can’t say that one lump stuck out for me.
DC: Well there’s one lump that looks just like a boar nut. I’m not kidding you – if you took a picture of the boar (and you can’t help but notice [his nuts]), and you took a picture of the pumpkin at the right angle, you would swear it’s the same thing.