Part-time Pumpkin Master and local dentist Chris Rodebaugh has broken his personal record once again with a nearly 2,000 pound pumpkin.
In 2018, Rodebaugh’s 1,551.5 pound pumpkin took first-place at the North Carolina State Fair. In 2019, he won third place with two, 1,418 and 1,347 pound, pumpkins. Last year, a 955 pound squash smashed the state record by 348 pounds, alongside his 3.69 pound carrot crushing the previous record by nearly a quarter pound.
This year, Rodebaugh’s pumpkin reigns.
“It was 1,965.5 pounds,” said Rodebaugh excitedly. “Just shy of 2,000 pounds. And my previous personal best, which won the state fair in 2018, was 1,551 [pounds], so we really crushed this year. We added 400 plus more pounds over our personal best.”
Each year, Rodebaugh attends the North Carolina State Fair to participate in the Great Pumpkin Commonwealth (GPC) competition hosted there. Noting that he does attend the State Fair of West Virginia, the GPC event is hosted by “the international club governing body that recognizes pumpkins officially.”
“They have good, clean, concise rules,” Rodebaugh explained. “There’s no guesswork.”
Although there is no GPC event in West Virginia, the time for one might be coming soon, after four West Virginians entered a special hall of fame.
“If you take three fruits to the scale over a calendar year [per] growing season, and those three fruits have a combined total of over 4,000 pounds, you get a Grower’s Jacket. In the GPC, this is kind of like winning the Masters or something, to get recognized for being an amazing grower. Well, I won my Growers Jacket this year, which is very cool. Nobody in West Virginia had one. But it’s been so active this year. Four of us this year, in the state of West Virginia, got our Grower’s Jacket, which is just unheard of. Competition breeds fun and ingenuity.”
|The winning pumpkin.|
How is a nearly 2,000 pound pumpkin possible? Selective breeding and a lot of care for seeds from a good pumpkin line, Rodebaugh explained.
“It definitely is [selective breeding]—the best way to think about it is just like racehorses,” Rodebaugh explained. “They have a pedigree, you know, every horse that races in the Kentucky Derby. They know the parents of that horse, the grandparents of the horse, and the [great] grandparents. It’s a lineage that is traceable, and well-documented. And [this is] the same thing—there’s a lineage that is traceable and well-documented on the parents of my pumpkin, its mother and father, removed seven or eight generations, over seven or eight growing seasons at least. … My seeds are far, far more valuable than my pumpkin. Far more valuable.”
By picking which plants reproduce, and how, over years, it’s possible to get bigger and bigger pumpkins, as well as sturdier and sturdier plants.
“People just look at the end of the season, [thinking] it’s as simple as which pumpkins were the biggest. [That’s not all we look at.] What traits did we like? How easy was the plant to care for and that sort of thing—it’s not always about how big it was. The pumpkin is just the seed we choose. It’s just as much [deciding things like how] difficult was this plant to deal with? How active was its growing? Was it an aggressive plant?”
Even with selective breeding, sometimes plants from the same seed can surprise.
“The funny thing is, I had two identical seeds from the same pumpkin that I planted side by side. That’s the way I start, and normally whichever one seems to be aggressive, or doing well, or having a favorable vine pattern is the keeper. … This one was the smallest of the two, and my daughter favored it, so I said ‘sweetheart, we’re probably gonna have to take this one out anyway, don’t get too attached.’ And no joke, within a couple weeks, it caught up and surpassed the other one. It was an underdog story. And then of course, you know that she takes all the credit, but realistically it probably had a better root structure, found nutrients better, something was a little bit more favorable in its micro-environment to give it the edge right from the get-go.”
Rodebaugh got his initial seeds from Robert Burchette, a grower in Virginia that also competes. This specific line has now gone through “seven or eight” seasons now, getting larger each year.
“This seed came from a pumpkin that was 1,342 pounds,” Rodebaugh noted. “And you think, ‘well why would you choose a 1,342 pound [pumpkin seed], when you’ve had 1,500 [and] 1,400 pounders, and all these other seeds yourself?’ I really liked the cross, just as simple as that. … I like the genetic lineage behind it and I thought that it had potential.”
Rodebaugh explained that most pumpkins, and plants in general, go by open-pollination, where pollen from any plant is transferred through the air or bees or other natural pollinators. This is not what he does—he selectively takes pollen from one male end of a plant and reproduces it with a select female plant.
“Under those circumstances, … you really don’t have predictability because open pollination is done by wildlife, insects, bees, whatever. Now in our scenario, the pumpkin flower comes up first thing in the morning. You go out before daylight or right at daybreak, that’s when the flowers just start to open up. … You may want to self the plant, [breeding it with itself], or you may have another plant in the patch that you think would be a nice thing to cross it with. You cross and control the pollination [by using] something as simple as a bag. Tie the flower closed and that keeps the bees and any other natural pollinators out of there.”
Sometimes, both the male and female genetic material comes from the same plant, producing something similar to, but not quite, the original plant.
“[Say] you have twins born from the same mother and father, even identical twins will have some differentiation … There’s just enough variation, even across the self, that it may improve the line or it may have negative effects.”
Ultimately though, once a grower has good seeds, there is no secret cheat code.
“People always [ask], what’s the secret? And really, the two things that I’d say is most important is having the proper stuff in your soil to begin with. You can’t make a cheeseburger without hamburger and cheese. … You can’t make a big pumpkin if you don’t have the proper nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, all these little micronutrients. Get a soil sample, and you can send it to your local WVU Extension office, and they’ll tell you what’s in your soil. … The next thing is just attention to detail. … They go outside at the end of April in hot huts. Keep them warm in the summer, until the event. You can have a nasty hail ruin the season. We had a drought this year, you’ve got to really watch your water and make sure your soil maintains proper moisture. … It’s this constant balancing act.”
|Transporting the pumpkin.|
Although big enough to feed many pumpkin pies, Rodebaugh noted that they taste “very bland, they’re kind of watery.”
Rodebaugh ended his conversation with The West Virginia Daily News excitedly explaining the near-universal response to the pumpkins.
“That’s the best part about growing pumpkins—they’re fun. Everybody looks at it and they smile. I’ve never had somebody look at the pumpkin and get upset. They may not get excited, but most of the time [people say] wow, that’s exciting!”
|Photo courtesy of Chris Rodebaugh.|