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Giant Pumpkin Growers Have Their Day at Frerichs Farm in Warren, R.I.

Thu October 06, 2011 - Northeast Edition
Jay Adams

Across New England pumpkin growers have been readying their entries for Pumpkin Palooza and the Giant Pumpkin Weigh Off at Frerichs Farm in Warren, R.I. Six months of nurturing fruit weighing hundreds of pounds and devising ways to transport these giants unharmed to the contests is in itself almost a full-time job.

Grown from April into October, the pumpkins must be babysat for hours each day. One imperfection or rot spot and they are disqualified from competition.

The Giant Pumpkin Weigh Off at Frerichs Farm is about to celebrate its 11th anniversary, but the event was originally started some years before that in Smithfield, R.I., by John Castalucci, good friends of Frerichs Farm owner Dave Frerichs.

“He started growing the first giant pumpkins on his farm,” said Frerichs. “I said to him, ’I want to lift those giants with a crane here and then drop them filled with candy. And he said to me, What? You want me to grow these things for five months, raise them and then smash them on the ground?’ He thought I was crazy. Then, he thought about it and said okay.

“When he saw how we carried out the idea, he said, ’Wow! You really do a nice job.’ He only had six acres in Smithfield. We have 13 acres here, more equipment, more room, bigger crowds.”

Frerichs is an internationally registered weigh site and some of the winners at the Giant Pumpkin Weigh Off have been registered in the Guinness Book of World Records. Other entrants at Frerichs have named it Number One nationally for collective giants. There are thousands of dollars to be won in this competition and, of course, bragging rights.

Two decades ago, 600 pounds was considered a champ, then 1,000, then, a 1,500-pounder at Frerichs Farms got international attention. Now the Holy Gourd is up to a ton. Each pumpkin can only be lifted and weighed once, which is why farmers raise several at a time.

Tripod, Hoists, Ropes

Pumpkin growers from all over the country share tips and secrets, but Frerichs said, “It’s Rhode Island genetics that are growing these giant pumpkins all over the country. It’s the seeds from our giants that everyone wants. The circle keeps getting bigger, along with the pumpkins.

“Competitors devise their own tall tripod with pipes to move them,” said Frerichs. “They have actually invented a cinch method. There is a ring on top, with multiple straps sewn on. The ropes go through the straps.

“Then they tie a big ring around the pumpkin and put chains around it. They raise the pumpkin up high, back a vehicle underneath it and lower it. It’s not for the faint of heart when they move these massive things,” added Frerichs.

“This is serious lifting power,” he continued. “The lifting devices can’t be flimsy. Some folks use a forklift to lift the pumpkins on to palates because they’re digging up 1,600-pound pumpkins. We just had a 2,000-pound pumpkin but it had a little defect on it and it blew. It would have set a world record.”

Bobcats and Gantry Cranes

Steve Connolly of Sharon, Mass., uses all of his growing and engineering skills to raise, weigh, lift, move and secure his giant gourds.

Connolly is a plastics engineer at a medical company called DePuy for Johnson & Johnson. For more than a decade he has been developing bigger and bigger contestants. In 2000, Connolly grew the first 1,000-pound pumpkin in New England (1009.6 lbs.).

“I brought it to the Topsfield Fair in Topsfield, Mass., and won the first place $10,000 prize,” said Connolly.

In 2005, Connolly entered a 1,214.5-pounder which won first place at The BIG E in Springfield, Mass. Also that year, he entered a 1,333-pounder at Frerichs Farm but it only came in second at the weigh off.

In 2008, Connolly used a Bobcat lifter at Frerichs Farm to carry a 1,568-pounder over and through the big crowd. Unofficially it was the largest in the world that year and was called The Beast from the East.

“It was the largest pumpkin grown in the world that year, but was disqualified because of a small spot of rot underneath,” added a disconsolate Connolly.

Size and weight are not the only criteria to be a champion. The gourd also has to be perfectly sound, with no rot, holes or cracks. This, of course, makes it much more difficult to hoist and maintain for extensive travel.

“We make sure that the Topsfield event and the Frerichs event are never on the same day,” said Connolly. “They are always one week apart. And I bring a different pumpkin to each weigh-off. It’s one of the Great Pumpkin Commonwealth (GPC) rules.”

In 2010, Connolly made national headlines when he produced a 1674.5 monster.

“These pumpkins originated in Peru and Bolivia, down in South America,” said Connolly. “We are on the equal and opposite latitude on the other side of the earth. The growing conditions are actually ideal right here in New England.

“But,” he added, “It is tough to grow these monsters throughout their six-month life. They are constantly attacked both above and below ground by microbes, mold, fungus, animals, bugs and disease. The rule of thumb is, grow three, and, if you are lucky, one will survive.”

Connolly makes his own devices to transport his champions by very careful measures.

“The growers use all kind of lifting devices, including large crane devices to lift the pumpkins out of their patches and up and over their homes to get them into the trailers,” said Connolly. “Sometimes, I use a homemade Gantry Crane with a chain fall. Sometimes, I use a BobCat, and, sometimes, pure people power. Other growers recruit a small army and make the rounds with each other to various patches and make the lift with tripods.

“In that case,” Connolly added, “with extreme care, the pumpkins are rolled onto a tarp and carried into a truck. We place the pumpkins onto about eight inches of foam to make sure they don’t crack during the trip to the fair,” he said.

Smashing Pumpkins

Another equally important pumpkin event takes place at Frerichs’ Farm every year.

Tim Dorrance, the owner of Dorrance Electric Co. in Rehoboth, Mass., operates a bucket material handler which suspends one of the giant pumpkins high in the air, above the hundreds of onlookers below.

“This is not a construction truck. This is a bucket material handler with a crane winch. It can lift five thousand pounds,” said Dorrance, who is now in his sixth year of doing this Frerichs Farm.

Frerichs, invented his own device for this purpose, according to Dorrance, “Dave has a latch system. He pulls a rope attached to the latch and releases the pumpkin,” said Dorrance.

Once released, the giant gourd shatters and there is a dash for its seeds.

“Half of this is growing a giant pumpkin. The other is the seeds. They are giant seeds and they scramble for them,” said Dorrance.

Pumpkin Brotherhood

The gourds are not the only things that kept getting bigger and bigger. The local association grew and grew along with the pumpkins. Soon, it was established in many states.

“We lost the world record (for size) the last two years. A record was set in Wisconsin two years ago and another in Ohio last year,” said Frerichs. “But the genesis of their seeds came from Rhode Island.

“It’s a kind of brotherhood,” Frerichs added proudly. “It’s a ’You help me and I help you.’ There’s camaraderie and they formed their own organization, this group of guys who always help each other. They don’t say, ’I’m not helping you, because your pumpkin is bigger than mine!’ They are never jealous. They are really a great group of guys.”

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