A California farmer broke a North American record on Monday when his large, bulbous gourd clocked in at 2,058 pounds during the annual Half Moon Bay pumpkin weigh-off, which has been drawing veteran growers and hobbyists alike since 1974.
The giant squash, dubbed by festival organizers as the "colossal ghost," grown by John Hawkley of Napa — especially large for a drought year — was about 265 pounds shy of claiming the world record for largest pumpkin. That record was set Sunday in Germany, when Swiss grower Beni Meier turned in a pumpkin that weighed 2,323 pounds.
Still, Hawkley's magnificent white pumpkin broke sacred ground statewide: It was the first time a pumpkin had smashed the ton-mark at the Half Moon Bay Safeway World Championship Pumpkin Weigh-Off, which has been running the contest for 41 years. Hawkley's record also beat Tim Mathison's 2,032-pound pumpkin at a nearby Uesugi Farms pumpkin weighoff this weekend.
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Hawkley, who has worked at the Napa Valley Register for more than three decades as a production manager, was at a loss for words as he was feted as the top dog by pumpkin lovers near and far.
He and his wife, Patty, stand to bring home more than $13,000 - $6 per pumpkin pound, plus $1,000 for having the largest pumpkin in California. If he had claimed a new world title, he could have taken home $30,000.
"Oh boy," was Hawkley's first reaction to the announcement made in the self-proclaimed "world pumpkin capital" of Half Moon Bay, a coastal city of 11,000 people in San Mateo County, about 30 miles south of San Francisco. "I never thought it would go like this."
His colleagues at the Napa Valley Register were thrilled: "We're so proud of him," customer service representative Jullie Van Grieken said. "He talks about his pumpkin farming all the time."
Hawkley certainly didn't give away all his trade secrets as part of winning a contest that began when the then-mayor of Half Moon Bay challenged the then-mayor of Circleville, Ohio as the center of the universe for pumpkins with a weigh-off. (The winner in 1974 was John Minaidis of Half Moon Bay with a pumpkin that grew to 132 pounds.)
But Hawkley did stress he didn't overwater his pumpkin, keeping in mind that California is now experiencing one of the most severe droughts on record.
"I don't know," he said trying to answer why and how his pumpkin just kept growing and growing by getting hydrated through an overhead misting system. "I just kept the water constant. I didn't overfeed it. I took what I got."
Hawkley ended up beating defending Half Moon Bay champion Gary Miller of Napa, who "obliterated the formidable field of heavyweight contenders" at last year's Half Moon Bay weigh-off with his 1,985-pound mega-gourd.
Turns out, Miller's gourd weighed just 1,393 pounds this year - about 600 pounds than his prize-winning pumpkin in 2013.
In addition to the record-setting, there was a bit of pumpkin drama at this year's contest. Farmer Russ Pugh's gourd made it to the Top 3 pumpkins. But his orange orb sprung a leak just as all 1,828-pounds of it was put on the scale, immediately disqualifying him from the race. Audible groans erupted from the crowd.
As for Hawkley, he was taking his newly acquired status in stride. He said he was going to use some of the prize money to fix his chimney, which suffered some damage in the Aug. 24 Napa earthquake.
Before the winners were announced, though, he had a down-to-earth attitude about being No. 1.
"Anything's possible," Hawkley said before the contest began. "I'm just happy to be here."