Quest For 2,000: Summer Heat Helps Worland Pumpkins Add 45-50 Pounds A Day

Giant pumpkin grower Jay Richards is on a mission to grow his first 2,000-pound pumpkin. With temperatures reliably in the 90s and 150 gallons of water per day, the 2 pumpkins (named Marion & Joanie Cunningham), have a shot to make it.

AR
Andrew Rossi

July 30, 20234 min read

Richards kneels next to his giant pumpkin he's named "Marion Cunningham," on track to become the largest pumpkin he's ever grown. Both pumpkins are further along in their growth at this point on the calender than any others he's grown in the past.
Richards kneels next to his giant pumpkin he's named "Marion Cunningham," on track to become the largest pumpkin he's ever grown. Both pumpkins are further along in their growth at this point on the calender than any others he's grown in the past. (Andrew Rossi for Cowboy State Daily)

An intense genetic experiment is underway on an unassuming patch of land between Thermopolis and Worland. If successful, "Project P2K" will result in the growth of gargantuan gourds that will set new records in Wyoming, and perhaps beyond.

At least that's what Jay Richards hopes for.

Richards is applying his expertise in the pumpkin patch, something he's been doing for nearly a decade. Using his knowledge and good seeds, he has grown several massive pumpkins, up to 1,600 pounds, despite the high-altitude desert environment of the region.

But the game has changed in 2023, thanks to his latest construction project.

Earlier this year, Richards built a 30-by-70-foot greenhouse, large enough to grow and protect two pumpkin plants. When the Cowboy State Daily checked in on his progress in May, he spoke of his goal of a 2,000-pound pumpkin — Project P2K — that would set new records at the Great Pumpkin Commonwealth's Wyoming state championship in October.

"Joanie Cunnigham" is the smaller of two pumpkins in the greenhouse. The blankets keep the sun off the pumpkin's surface, keeping it soft so water can keep filtering in.
"Joanie Cunnigham" is the smaller of two pumpkins in the greenhouse. The blankets keep the sun off the pumpkin's surface, keeping it soft so water can keep filtering in. (Andrew Rossi for Cowboy State Daily)

‘Happy Days’

The seeds for this year's pumpkins were planted May 4, nearly three weeks later than he intended. Almost three months later, he's optimistic — and with good reason.

The greenhouse is now the home of Joanie and Marion Cunningham, a pair of giant pumpkins named after the mother-daughter duo from “Happy Days.” There will be many happy days for Richards this year, as these are on track to be the biggest and best he's ever grown.

"I grew one a couple of years ago that failed right before the weigh-off,” he said. “It was going to go beyond 1,600 or 1,700 pounds. This one (Marion) is larger than that one at the same time on the calendar."

Inside Track

Both pumpkins are impressively large, especially compared to the one also growing in the outside patch where Richards grew his previous pumpkins.

On Sunday morning, Marion weighed-in at 770 pounds while Joanie checked-in at 528 pounds.

The outdoor pumpkin is impressively large, about the size of a basketball. But it pales in comparison to the greenhouse gourds (quite literally, as both of the indoor pumpkins also have more color).

"All three were planted at the same time," Richards said. “But based on size alone, the indoor pumpkins are two weeks of growth ahead of the outdoor one. That's a long time, in pumpkin days."

As Richards stalked along the perimeter of his greenhouse, he shared the statistics of what is making Joanie and Marion grow so large: 150 gallons of water a day and a constant temperature of 94 degrees at 80% humidity.

The interior of the custom greenhouse Richards built for two pumpkin plants, as each requires the space of a two-car garage to grow well.
The interior of the custom greenhouse Richards built for two pumpkin plants, as each requires the space of a two-car garage to grow well. (Andrew Rossi for Cowboy State Daily)

Pumpkin Pedigree

But after years of success, Richards knows what he's doing.

Pumpkin pedigree has a lot to do with success. The seeds and genetics for each plant were carefully chosen to produce the best result.

Joanie is a 1,854 Corbin and Marion a 900 Corbin. The number is the weight of the original pumpkin, and the name comes from who grew it (Andy Corbin of Cheyenne is the current state record holder.)

Marion, the larger of the two, grew from the same seed line as his 1,700-pound pumpkin from years ago. And it seems poised to surpass its predecessor. Under these controlled conditions, both of this year's pumpkins are gaining 45 to 50 pounds a day, with several months more to grow.

Richards won't speculate on how large these gourds will get, as that feels like tempting fate. But he's convinced his investment in the greenhouse is paying off.

"(The greenhouse) was specifically built for this,” he said. “I've been dreaming about this for eight years. It was quite a project. I'm not a builder. But it's going really well."

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Pumpkin Drop

Perhaps the best part about the whole pumpkin-growing thing is what Richard does when the season is over -- he drops them from a crane.

Come the first week of October, when Richard is hosting the annual Wyoming State Pumpkin Championship Weigh-Off, a 200-foot crane is situated in an adjacent field.

This is where many of the mega-pumpkins will be hoisted up and then dropped for all to see. The event attracts thousands of fans who tailgate hours before the exploding carnage.

This year's contest and drop will be held on October 7, 2023.

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Andrew Rossi

Features Reporter