The orange beasts return

Newcastle grower Madison Thomson poses with his 2,089-pound, champion pumpkin at the 26th annual giant pumpkin weigh-off contest held at Elk Grove Regional Park on Oct. 3. Below: Leonardo Urena of Napa brings his giant pumpkin to the contest.

The COVID-19 pandemic prompted the cancelation of this year’s Elk Grove Giant Pumpkin Festival, but its 26th annual pumpkin weigh-off contest lived on.

Two dozen growers from across California arrived with their orange beasts in tow at Elk Grove Regional Park on Oct. 3. Their pumpkins weighed between a few hundred pounds to 2,000, and the growers competed to win cash prizes.

Spectators were not allowed at the fenced-off contest site near the park’s Rotary Grove, due to the social distancing restrictions. Contestants were given appointments to have their pumpkins weighed before they left the park.

Madison Thomson of Newcastle joked to the Citizen that his boulder-shaped gourd weighed an estimated 200 pounds.

“I don’t even want to guess, I don’t want to jinx myself,” he said, before laughing.

Thomson was declared to be this year’s champion after his pumpkin weighed 2,089 pounds that afternoon. He celebrated his victory by laying across the pumpkin when he posed for photographs. This was the first time that he entered the Elk Grove competition.

“We’re stoked to have somewhere to take the thing and get the weight on it,” Thomson said about the contest. “We really appreciate everyone coming out to make it happen.”

A small group of organizers from the Cosumnes Community Services District (CSD) and contest volunteers stayed in the smoky air and 90-degree heat while they helped place each giant pumpkin on the scale.

The first weekend of October typically brings tens of thousands of visitors to Elk Grove Regional Park. They enjoyed Elk Grove Giant Pumpkin Festival’s traditions such as the scarecrow contest, the pumpkin pie-eating competition, and the “Giant Pumpkin Regatta” that challenges people to race boats made from giant pumpkin shells.

“This is the quietest that Elk Grove Park has been during the first weekend of October in 25 years,” CSD Parks and Neighborhood Services Director Steve Sims said, while looking at a nearly empty park.

He said that the giant pumpkin contest still ran smoothly and on time, while his staff kept their social distancing policy.

CSD Special Event Coordinator Heather Shortino helped check in contestants who also brought watermelons, sunflowers, bushel gourds, and tomatoes to be weighed. Jonathan Krull, a grower from Herald, won several produce contests when he entered his giants, such as a 3-pound tomato and a 23-pound cantaloupe.

“I’m just happy we got to celebrate the pumpkins in spite of canceling the entire festival,” Shortino said about the weigh-off contests. “We got to celebrate the people who actually started the festival - that’s the whole reason why we started it.”

Carla Suehowicz came from Sonora and finished at eighth place with her 1,235-pound pumpkin.

“I thought it would go a little above 1,240, but I’m happy with it,” she said. “It was fun to grow, that’s the main thing.”

Suehowicz said that having a mentor and properly amended soil helped her grow the pumpkin – she also noted that she ordered 350 pounds of fertilizer last year. She now has plans to sell her pumpkin to the Black Oak Casino for display.

“That’s exciting for me because it helps me out with the money,” the grower said while laughing.

Thomson said that he returned to the Auburn area after living in Fort Bragg for several years.

“It was the first time in a long time we had a summer temperature that was over 60 degrees and was conducive to growing,” he said about comparing Newcastle to the relatively cold, coastal city of Fort Bragg.

Thomson grew his champion pumpkin in a 1,800-square-foot patch of tilled soil. During the summer heat, kept the pumpkin covered with a cloth and watered it with sprayers.

Asked after his plans after the contest, Thomson said that he might leave it up for public display at his home.

Robert Cook dominated the lake at Elk Grove Regional Park almost every October when the giant pumpkin festival held their Giant Pumpkin Regatta there. This year, the longtime regatta champion could only bring his homegrown, 661-pound pumpkin to the weigh-off contest.

Cook said that he might transform his pumpkin into a boat to row in the Comanche Reservoir.

“I was hoping it was going to be a boat,” he said about his pumpkin when he grew it. “I might still put that one in the water.”

The champs of this year’s

produce weigh-off contest

Giant pumpkin: Thomson - 2,089 pounds

Giant pumpkin (Future Farmers division for growers ages 18 and under): Looper - 870 pounds

Bushel gourd: Urena - 201 pounds  

Cantaloupe: Krull - 23 pounds

Field pumpkin: Krull – 83 pounds

Long gourd: Urena - 111 inches

Squash: Fennikoh - 992 pounds

Sunflower: Krull - 39 inches

Tomato: Krull - 3.15 pounds

Watermelon: Krull – 189 pounds

Zucchini: Krull - 15 pounds