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‘I hug them’: meet the farmer raising 2,000lb pumpkins

·7-min read

It starts with a tiny seed.

Leonardo Urena opened his palm to show a small plastic bag containing a single special specimen. Smooth and white, it wasn’t yet remarkable, but it will be, because it has the potential to sprout a squash as heavy as a walrus.

“I call them my golden seeds,” he said with a smile, “because they grow the big pumpkins.”

Urena is part of an elite group of global growers testing the boundaries once set by nature. With cultivation and care, he brings several of these orange giants to life each year.

The production manager for Hudson Ranch, a winery and farm in Napa, California, he also grows a wide variety of fruits, vegetables and flowers – from mini gourds suspended on vines overhead to beets poking up from the ground – but his prized pumpkins are the showstoppers. The ones he produces weigh in the thousands of pounds.

Urena treats all of his plants tenderly – like part of his family – and that might be the secret to his success. That, and the lush landscape he cares for. Sprawling across 2,200 acres of land tucked against the Napa/Sonoma border, the ranch features neatly trestled wine grape vines, oak-laden hills, and the garden where he makes the magic happen. There are rows of flowers, juicy bright tomatoes, and a tunnel of gourds, their vines wrapped in an overhead arch. And, of course, there’s the large section for the next round of giant pumpkins. The plants require roughly 1,000 square feet of space.

Leonardo Urena cheers next to huge pumpkin
Urena and his record-breaking pumpkin at the Half Moon Bay pumpkin festival. Photograph: Ben Margot/AP

This year, Urena grew the largest pumpkin in California, weighing in at just over 2,000 pounds at the Safeway world championship in Half Moon Bay. Still, he didn’t win first at the so-called Super Bowl of weigh-offs, which took place earlier in October, beaten by a pumpkin from Washington state. His last first was in 2019, when he broke the record with a pumpkin at 2,175 pounds, a prize that earned him $15,000.

But his entry for this season is still a special one. “My turtle. My baby turtle – it is one of my favorites,” he said beaming, with one hand patting the enormous pumpkin. It has earned a nickname for the green hue across its top (the result of a blanket he put on the pumpkin to keep it warm while it grew) and a neck-like stem protruding from its middle. It even has a little face if you look closely.

giant pumpkins on platforms. A person sits on one of them
Finalists at the Half Moon Bay pumpkin festival. Photograph: Ben Margot/AP

Even though the turtle is done growing and competing, its job is far from over. Inside its hulking frame lies the future. Genetics is what makes the giants possible. Urena hopes the turtle’s seeds, which will be shared and traded with growers around the world, will turn out even bigger pumpkins. “This is one of the seeds that’s going to be in big demand in the coming year,” Urena said, adding that he has not even began to harvest them and he’s already fielding requests. But his golden seeds are not for sale – he gives them to other growers without charge.

He said that’s in honor of the first pioneer of the craft, a Nova Scotia man named Howard Dill who spent decades working to produce the perfect seeds. Now known as the Pumpkin King, Dill died in 2008 but his seeds – and the legacy he left – live on.

When Dill first started, it was a feat to grow a pumpkin close to 500 pounds. Last year, a Minnesota man broke Urena’s record at the Safeway World Championship with a giant specimen weighing 2,350 pounds.

Urena wasn’t upset about it. In a world where seeds reign supreme, growers and their creations are all connected. The pumpkin that stole his seat – a beautiful bright orange contender – came from a seed Urena himself harvested. Urena saw it like a sister to his own pumpkin. “I celebrate it because it is my seed,” he said. “It’s like seeing part of your family being number one.”

But even with the right seed, it’s not easy to grow giants. Things can always go awry and even a tiny rupture in their delicate and squishy skin can disqualify a pumpkin from competing.

The pumpkins can grow 50 pounds a day, maxing out after about four months.

This year Urena’s weren’t as large as they could have been, because tiny black aphids sucked the sugars that make them big, while they were growing. Urena’s gardens are organic and he is passionate about protecting beneficial insects like bees and ladybugs.

There are other dangers. A strong storm can take out a crop, rodents can cause ruin, and, of course, in California, climate disasters like fire and drought all must be contended with. Last year, when smoke cloaked Napa Valley in a toxic gray haze, Urena watched as the leaves of his prized plants began to wilt. “We did what we could to save the leaves and the plants but sometimes there’s nothing you can do,” he said.

This year, there was less smoke in his area. But the region saw little rainfall and California was mired in a devastating drought. Giant pumpkins are thirsty plants and Urena’s garden relies on a well for water. Urena had planned to plant more than six seeds, but he had to cut his crop in half. “So, I planted three this year,” he said, “but I ended up with three beautiful pumpkins.”

But growing giant pumpkins isn’t about the competition. Urena, who refers to it not as an art or science, but as a sport, said that it’s one that relies on camaraderie and collaboration.

“Every time we go to any of the weigh-offs it is like a family reunion that we the growers have,” he said. “It’s a good sport because there is no jealousy or rivalry.” Urena considers himself fortunate to live and create off the land and he hopes to pay it forward. He’s ready to give newcomers seeds to get them started and hopes more young people will get interested in the craft.

It was the good-naturedness of another grower that gave Urena his start. He began growing giants in 2000 when Lee Hudson, who owns the land he works and lives on, thought it might be nice to have one for the front porch. He headed to the nearest nursery in Napa to search for seeds but instead was given a phone number. Local “master” grower, Pete Glasier, answered the call and gave him enough “magic” seeds to get him started.

“He changed my life,” Urena said. “My self-esteem back then was so low and I couldn’t believe in myself but he changed my life for good.”

Urena was only a teenager when he came to the United States to work. Born in a small town in Central Mexico, his father died when he was young and he wanted to help support his large family. He never imagined he’d live on this land, but the inspiration and love for plants came early. As a child, whenever he would walk to the next village for groceries he’d pass an orchard lined with beautiful fruit trees. Before long, he started sneaking in to watch the elderly owner care for them.

“He would talk to them,” Urena recalls. “How are you doing, Mr Guava tree? My apple tree, my orange tree – just giving them all a good morning and admiring the fruit and the beauty of them.”

The beauty and wonder inspired him and he carries that within him now. “I also talk to my plants,” he said. He tells them they are beautiful and praises them for the beautiful fruit that they produce.

Perhaps that’s why, year after year, Urena’s pumpkins grow larger.

“I go in the tent and I hug my pumpkin and say, OK, my little turtle. Keep growing,” he said. “I know you are going to get to scale and everyone will be clapping at you.”

What does it feel like when he has a prize winner? “You don’t see the numbers because you are on the stage and only the crowd is seeing the numbers. When you hear the big loud scream from the crowd – that means your pumpkin is number one.”

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