There has been a lot of curiosity from our listeners after Edgar B. Herwick III’s story about the 200th anniversary of the Topsfield Fair ran, and there’s been plenty of follow-up questions about giant pumpkins. That's a real centerpiece at the fair. Edgar spoke with WGBH's All Things Considered anchor Barbara Howard about those questions. The following transcript has been edited for clarity.
Barbara Howard: There was a winner this year?
Edgar B. Herwick III: Yes, they set a record with the largest pumpkin ever seen at Topsfield. This was a grower named Ron Wallis from Rhode Island. His pumpkin was 2,114 pounds. That's almost 40 pounds larger than the previous record at Topsfield. He bagged himself a cool $8,000 for having that big pumpkin. That is more than a ton, literally.
Howard: So remind us about that initial story you did.
Herwick: So initially I went for a walk-and-talk with a man named Joe Jutras. Jutras has been doing this as a hobby for like 25 years. He has set three world records — kind of think of it as a triple crown of giant fruit growing. He wants to set the world record for the largest pumpkin. He once set the world record for the longest long-gourd at like 14-plus feet. And he recently, last year, set the world record for the largest green squash. So this man really knows how to grow giant fruits. And by the way — these pumpkins, gourds? They’re all fruit.
Howard: One question we keep hearing is, how do they keep alive? Why don't they just collapse under their own weight? You know, why don't they just snap off the stem? They get so big.
Herwick: Well, a lot of them do. What Joe Jutras told me is you get about a 50 percent success rate. So if you get half of what you planted into the ground to actually grow and mature and stay alive, you've had a good year. And it takes a lot of work to do this.
Howard: How big are these plots?
Herwick: It's about a third of a football field, and it's all for one pumpkin. It's crazy. It doesn't look real — it looks like something out of a fairy tale.
Howard: Then comes the day they have to get it to the fair. How do you move 2,000 pounds of fruit?
Herwick: Well thankfully, things have gotten easier than they used to be. It’s on a platform. They forklift it, kind of like onto a flatbed. And keep in mind, these pumpkins win by being the heaviest, so the ones that do survive are actually pretty robust. And importantly, they have very thick walls, because that's one of the ways you're able to get a lot of weight on a pumpkin. And of course, they're breeding these things selectively.
Howard: Now here's a question we've been getting a lot: can you eat these things?
Herwick: It would be absolutely disgusting — and probably would make you sick if you ate it. Jutras is using everything from chemicals to seaweed on them, even crushed shells from clams. He makes this stuff out of worm droppings.
Howard: So then what happens to them?
Herwick: Many of these end up getting donated. These pumpkin weigh-offs happen at the time of year when we’re right around Halloween, so kids make huge jack-o-lantern-out of these, that's pretty typical. Jutras says he donates them to an event in Providence. Now one crucial thing about this was Jutras said the reason why he likes to work with these folks is that they’re local, but they are also very good about getting the seeds back to him. Those seeds are very important. They're trying to breed these things over time. You get a couple of hundred seeds out of one of these giant pumpkins and, as Jutras was explaining, he ends up donating most of the seeds. For example, his world record pumpkins, he donates those seeds to other organizations and they auction them off as fundraisers for their groups. And most likely, for example, the next world record that happens maybe ends up being based on a seed from the last world record.
Howard: Did he slip you any seeds?
Herwick: No, he did not slip me any seeds, but this man grows all kinds of stuff. So he was like force-feeding me fresh figs and tangerines and apples and mushrooms — all of which he grows on his land in Rhode Island. Really interesting guy, it seems like a really fascinating world.
The Topsfield Fair is billed as the country's oldest agricultural fair. It wraps up its 200th season on Monday. His reporting on it generated quite a few questions that he's now answered from our listeners.