Pumpkin Fest

Jim and Katie Looper with the giant pumpkin they grew for the weigh-off contest. 

The first weekend of October is traditionally a time of 1,000-pound pumpkins, pumpkin pie eating contests, and giant pumpkin boats being raced at Elk Grove Regional Park.

Local parks provider, the Cosumnes Community Services District (CSD) in July canceled the 26th annual Elk Grove Giant Pumpkin, due to public health restrictions against large gatherings during the COVID-19 pandemic. Other Elk Grove traditions that were also canceled this year include the Elk Grove Western Festival, the Strauss Festival of Elk Grove, and the Old Town Elk Grove Dickens Faire.

However, the Elk Grove Giant Pumpkin Festival’s core tradition will remain during the morning of Saturday, Oct. 3. There will still be a weigh-off contest for giant pumpkins and other produce at Elk Grove Regional Park.

However, this will be a private event and spectators are not allowed at the contest site.

Strict social distancing will be enforced for the participants. Only registered contestants will be admitted - growers were given appointments to present their giant pumpkins so that no more than eight pumpkins will be weighed at a time.

The public can view the weigh-off contest by watching videos on the CSD’s social media pages. Plans are to announce the winner live on Facebook around 4 p.m.

Last year’s champion was Napa grower Leonardo Urena who raised a 1,938-pound pumpkin. The reigning world champion is Mathias Willemijns who grew a 2,624-pound pumpkin for the 2016 European Championship Pumpkin Weigh-off in Germany.

“We ask that people don’t come to the park since we’re not allowed to have people congregating there,” said Jenna Brinkman, the CSD’s public affairs manager. “We hope they’ll follow us on social media.”

She noted the CSD will continue to host the annual scarecrow contest, but the crafters will display their scarecrows at their front yards instead of the park. That contest’s organizers plan to share photographs of the scarecrows on the CSD’s website and their social media pages.

“Our goal this year is to move some of the things that Elk Grove has come to love about the festival and move them online in a virtual environment for safety,” Brinkman told the Citizen. “We are happy to still hold the weigh-off contests this year – it takes a lot of time and effort to grow these giant pumpkins and squashes.”

Two such growers are Jim Looper and his daughter Katie who are raising an orange beast at their yard. Jim teaches agriculture at Sheldon High School and he took a break from leading online classes to discuss their contender for this year’s contest.

“We’re incredibly thankful there is still an opportunity,” Jim said about this year’s contest.

He said they previously grew pumpkins that weighed in the upper 800-pound to the low-900 pound range, which were the heaviest pumpkins grown in Sacramento County. Katie took first place in the contest’s Future Farmer division twice. She said that she’s “very excited” about returning to the competition.

Her father mentioned the challenges of trying to grow a giant pumpkin while also focusing on other projects during the COVID-19 pandemic. There’s also the hardship of growing pumpkins in the hot summer weather since they typically thrive in cooler areas like Napa County.

“If you’re not out there every day, you’re going to see the results,” Jim said about being dedicated to raising a healthy pumpkin.

He estimated that his family’s pumpkin will weigh between 600 to 700 pounds this year.

“Which is embarrassing for us, but it’s the reality,” Jim said.

The agriculture educator explained that the keys to raising a giant pumpkin are genetics, nutrition, plant health, and proper management.

He said that his family traditionally gets their seeds from the giant pumpkin growers seminar that’s held every March in Elk Grove. They also start preparing for their next pumpkin as early as October when they remove the potentially harmful remains of their old pumpkin from their yard. The Loopers then plant cover crops to replenish the soil’s nutrients in November. They finally plant their giant pumpkin seeds in the following April.

And then there is the challenge of carefully transporting a giant pumpkin to the contest site at Elk Grove Regional Park. Stories still abound over growers who accidentally dropped pumpkins from their vehicles and left epic messes on the streets.

“We drive very slow and careful,” Jim said. “You definitely want to make sure there are no accidents that day.”

Contest organizers said that the public can get updates on the giant pumpkin and produce contests by visiting the CSD’s Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter pages.