Milan Lukes has crawled inside the pumpkins he grows. He fits in the cavity because he’s only 13 years old. He dug into them last year and in 2013 to collect seed.
“There’s room for people my size in them, which is cool,” says the teen from St. Norbert who is growing pumpkins again this year in his parents’ backyard.
These ones are even bigger than the ones he’s grown before. He’ll find out precisely what they weigh when he enters the Great Pumpkin Commonwealth Weigh-Off at Roland’s Pumpkin Fair Saturday, Oct. 3.
“I was interested when I was really young, maybe six,” says Lukes, whose pumpkin-growing know-how is matched only by his exuberance.
He decided to start growing giants after visiting the Roland Pumpkin Fair in 2012.
“I really got serious about growing the giants after I went with my mom and I saw the winning pumpkin.” (It was 1,242.5 pounds.) “Since then I wanted to give it a shot.”
He went home, read everything he could find, built mini-greenhouses and equipped them with heaters. Seed bought via the Internet in 2013 produced a big one — a 519-pounder — but that wasn’t nearly as big as last year’s. It weighed 1,020.6 lbs.
Lukes says he’s eagerly awaiting the weigh-off Oct. 3. “Obviously, every year I’m hoping I have a winner,” he says. “At this point anything can happen.”
October 3 is when giant pumpkin growers from all over the region will roll into Roland to find out who is named the heavyweight champion. Roland has been one of just three western Canadian sites for a GPC weigh-off since 1995 and celebrates its 25th anniversary as a pumpkin fair this year.
It all began as a tribute to a local farmer and giant grower, the late Edgar Van Wyck, who put his town on the map with a world-record-breaking pumpkin in the mid-1970s, spurring local interest in growing the giants.
The weigh-off is lively entertainment for spectators, but a nail-biter for the two dozen or so growers who enter.
Henry Banman of Schanzenfeld earned the all-time-high Manitoba record with a 1,379.5-pounder in 2011 and he placed first in the competition for three years afterward. Minnesota grower Charlie Bernstrom’s 1,297.2-pounder snatched away his winning streak in 2014.
Cutthroat competitiveness is set aside all the rest of the year, though. That’s when growers hold seminars and patch tours, swapping advice in hopes of figuring out how to push out even bigger pumpkins. Banman and other growers have shared seeds and advice with Lukes and the young pumpkin grower has really appreciated the mentoring from his older colleagues.
“It is a big deal to me,” adds Lukes. “It’s really inspiring just to talk and share information, because there’s not a lot of people you can actually talk about giant pumpkins with.”
That’s because growing giant pumpkins is one of those hobbies that will either completely absorb you, or you’ll just give up fairly quickly, says Roland farmer Art Cameron, chair of the Roland Pumpkin Fair and a grower himself. His best was a 1,004.5-pounder that earned him fourth place in 2013. He keeps on trying, says Cameron.
“Some do try it once and then just give up. But if you grow a 200-lb. pumpkin one year, often then you’re just addicted to it. You want to try and grow a bigger one the next year.”
Cameron recalls Manitoba growers once saying they’d never get over 1,000 lbs. Now they regularly do.
Roland’s annual fair easily attracts that many visitors too. There’s always standing-room only in the village arena when the weigh-off begins, with spectators craning to see the massive pumpkins hoisted onto the scales. They “ooh” and “aah” as the weights of the obese oddities are announced. Later, people take selfies and photos of their kids beside them.
First place wins a cash prize worth $1,500 supplied by local businesses, but it’s the prestige as much as the prize money that attracts growers, adds Cameron.
“It’s the same as entering a calf in a 4-H show, or a horse,” he said.
The Great Pumpkin Commonwealth is an international group with members all across Canada and the U.S., as well as Europe, Australia and New Zealand. In 2015, there will be 106 weigh-offs around the world. The world record is currently held by a Swiss grower who produced a 2,323.7-lb. pumpkin in 2014.
Can we do that here some day? Cameron chuckles at the thought. “Not in my lifetime, I don’t think,” he says.
But pumpkin growers will keep trying. Maybe Lukes will find a way.
“It’s really interesting to me because it’s fascinating how quickly they grow,” says the teen. “It’s just a neat experience taking care of a plant.”