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Local men focus on growing big pumpkins

Local men focus on growing big pumpkins

GIANT PUMPKIN GROWERS John Barlow, left, and Caleb Jacobus, right, are barely visible behind their behemoth pumpkin in this photo. The pair combined their growing efforts this year with some specta...

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POSTED October 31, 2018 1:19 p.m.

GAYS MILLS - With Halloween next week, many folks are thinking about pumpkins for carving and decorating. However, two local growers think about pumpkins all year long. They are part of an elite group of Wisconsin growers who specialize and compete in growing giant pumpkins and gourds.

John Barlow of Gays Mills and Caleb Jacobus of Soldiers Grove had a common goal of winning the 2018 Great Pumpkin Commonwealth Master Gardener Competition. 

“We would have won last year, if we had worked together,” Barlow reported, referring to the fact that this is the first year the two men had combined their efforts to reach their goal.

A GPC competition is a worldwide, highly accredited event that holds sanctioned weigh-offs and collects results for each category around the entire world.

“Rhode Island is our biggest competitor,” Jacobus said. “Ten years ago they were the best, now Wisconsin is the best.”

The growing partners were quick to give credit to other Wisconsin giant pumpkin growers, reiterating that Wisconsin is at the top of the competition year after year.

There are eight different growers in our State’s Top Ten whose pumpkins average a world’s best 2128 pounds, according to the growing partners.

The GPC’s Master Gardener competition is not only for pumpkins but accommodates seven categories of garden delights in the global extravaganza including: giant pumpkins, giant squash, watermelons, field pumpkins, tomatoes, long gourds and bushel gourds.

The Master Gardener category competition includes the best of a grower’s five results out of the seven categories. Of The Master Gardener qualifiers throughout the world, Barlow and Jacobus won three categories, and were second in two others. The pair set State Records in Giant Pumpkin (2283 pounds), Giant Squash (1521 pounds), and Bushel Gourd (370 pounds).

The GPC hosts many sanctioned weigh-offs throughout the world and collects the official information, which is consolidated and posted online at gpc1.org.

A participant can take their entries, one time only, to any sanctioned weigh-in site of their choice. However, there is much to be considered when choosing where and when to weigh-in. One of the biggest concerns is centered on how much more the pumpkin could grow and it’s chances of continuing to grow without being in jeopardy.

Site location is also of importance, as trailering a large pumpkin across many miles is challenging, especially since it must arrive in perfect condition.

“We need to take the pumpkin to have it judged and weighed. If it is damaged or becomes damaged, it will be disqualified,” Jacobus said.

“Where we go to have it weighed may be determined by how the pumpkin or gourd is doing, the prize structure, plus other factors, so continually inspecting the fruit is very important,” Barlow added.

This year, Barlow and Jacobus went to four different sites for weigh-ins: Cedarburg, Kenosha, Bloomfield and Anamosa.

The process of growing begins each year with seed selection, such as choosing the best seeds from previous champions.

“Genetics is the most important thing about seed selection,” Jacobus explained.

“These hopeful, prizewinners are not just put in as seeds and then forgotten. There’s a lot of attention that is given to allow the fruit to reach the competitive weight,” Barlow said.

That pampering includes the use of serious methods to ensure the fruit’s safety, including but certainly not limited to mouse traps, fans, blankets, shade cloths, heaters, lights, windbreaks, mill fabric, walking boards, fencing, vine pins, and stump covers. Vine management is necessary to maximize airflow and rooting and to minimize pests and diseases.

John Barlow and Caleb Jacobus each have gardens for growing at their homes. This past season, they used a total of about two acres for growing.

A giant pumpkin requires about 1,000 square feet to grow, the growers explained.

“It will grow 50 to 60 pounds a day for 14 to 20 days and then taper down,” stated Barlow, who has been growing giants for about 25 years with his wife Merri.

Throughout the season, the growing team likely spends about 20 to 40 hours each week to care for their special beauties.

“In May, June, July and August, I spend pretty much all my weekends caring for the plants,” Jacobus said. He grew his first large pumpkin 13 years ago.

Jacobus often recruits his children to join him during time spent in the pumpkin patch.

Eventually, the day comes to decide when the produce will be transported to the weigh-in location.

The efforts that Jacobus and Barlow put into their growing this year resulted in them reaching their primary goal of being World Champion Master Gardeners. Their 2,283-pound pumpkin was ranked second in the World and was invited by the GPC to be displayed at the Botanical Gardens in New York.

All expenses were paid for the winners to fly to New York, the winning pumpkins arriving by trailer to a ceremony honoring the world’s top three pumpkins. While in New York, the pumpkins were displayed and celebrated, the seeds were harvested and given back to the growers and a fantastic time was had by all.

March 15-17, 2019 the GPC will hold a ‘Big Show’ at Lambeau Field in Green Bay. There will be presentations, demonstrations and social events for growers from all over the world. Also there will be a formal Award Ceremony honoring growers’ accomplishments.

The growing of giant vegetables is a fun and useful hobby, which is well supported by organizations such as the Great Pumpkin Commonwealth. If you’re interested in growing big, Wisconsin has an online presence at wisconsingiantpumpkingrowers.com. John Barlow is the president of this group. Membership has benefits that include seed distribution, seminars, socials, newsletters and patch tours.

Congratulations to the growing team of John Barlow and Caleb Jacobus!

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