Is that the Great Pumpkin?
Posted: October 9, 2012
The Winchester Star
BERRYVILLE — When it comes to harvesting pumpkin seeds, David Nalls believes in child labor.
The owner of Nalls Farm Market at 4869 Harry Byrd Highway, east of Berryville, will be digging the seeds out of his Atlantic Giant pumpkin on Oct. 27 — and usually, the kids on hand at the market love to get involved.
The market has had a giant pumpkin for 15 years, and Nalls picked up the 2012 specimen Sunday in Pennsylvania.
“It’s a tradition,” he said.
This year, a 1,469-pound member of the gourd family, surrounded by smaller kin, sits to the right of the main shop.
“It’s not as big as last year’s,” Nalls said of the one from 2011, which tipped the scales at 1,679 pounds.
“They had an off year,” he added, citing the extreme heat that hovered over the region this summer. Pumpkins do not respond well to heat.
Growing giant pumpkins is somewhere between a hobby and a religion for those who take part in the competition. There are a number of places each fall that hold weigh-ins for the gourds, which are getting bigger every year.
Nalls contracts with husband and wife growers Gerry and Larry Checkon of North Cambria, Pa., for a big pumpkin.
Gerry had the world record pumpkin in 1999, a 1,131-pound specimen. In 2005, it was her husband’s turn, with a 1,469-pounder.
There are at least 30 sanctioned weigh-ins in the United States and a couple in Canada, he said, with the current record pumpkin weighing in at 2,009 pounds.
The top prize for the biggest pumpkin is $1,000, but those who compete put in a lot of time on the gourds. In the case of the Checkons, it amounts to four hours a day taking care of a single pumpkin. And they grow more than one.
People who grow the giant gourds usually demand that the seeds be returned, and on Oct. 27, the Checkons will be at the market to collect the seeds from this year’s giant.
First, a hole is cut in the back of the pumpkin. Then, any youngsters who are around are invited to crawl inside and haul out the seeds.
The tradition started several years ago when two little girls at Nalls Market were invited to reach in and get a handful of seeds. They both gave it a try, but they couldn’t quite reach the center.
Larry Checkon suggested climbing in.
“Their mother didn’t want them to get in there,” Nalls recalled, “but the girls won that argument.”
They scooped up lots of seeds, but emerged with pumpkins strings in their hair and on their clothes.
“You’ve got to get dirty to get pumpkin seeds,” Nalls said.
Asked why he doesn’t grow his own giant pumpkin, Nalls laughed. “I put in 100 hours a week here,” he said.
There’s a lot of work and know-how that goes into growing the giant gourds.
As an example, Nalls told the story of how he gave a friend in Clarke County a handful of seeds from giant pumpkins he’s had over the years. The friend planted them in an old cow lot, with soil full of manure at least a foot thick.
“He got vines like you wouldn’t believe,” he said, spreading his hands far apart to show the spread of a single leaf.
But, he added, “Not much in the way of pumpkins.”
Nalls said he paid quite a bit for his pumpkin, though he won’t reveal the exact amount.
“It’s advertising,” he said, estimating that more than a thousand people stop by, just to get a picture of the big pumpkin.
The gourd will make an appearance in Leesburg’s annual Halloween parade, after Nalls’ wife, Mary Ann, works some magic on it with her carving knife.
“I like the traditional jack-’o-lantern,” Nalls said, but his wife usually goes for something more creative. She stays away from scary Halloween themes, though, because so many children come to see it.
Her carving skills will be showcased this weekend during the Pumpkin Glow at Long Branch Historic House and Farm’s Shenandoah Valley Wine and Music Festival.
Pumpkin chunking — the sport of hurling or chucking a pumpkin by mechanical means for distance — will debut at Long Branch this year, but the annual Friday night “glow” of lit carved pumpkins continues.
Nalls Farm Market organizes that event, which is set for Friday from 4 to 8 p.m.
Mary Ann also invites young people to carve a pumpkin to be displayed when the works are lit up at dusk.
“We hope to do over 100 pumpkins for the glow,” she said.
— Contact Val Van Meter at firstname.lastname@example.org.