WORLAND — Turns out the only thing people like more than gawking at gargantuan pumpkins is watching them spectacularly explode when dropped 200 feet from a crane.
That was the fate of the record 21 huge pumpkins that vied for their growers’ bragging rights at Saturday’s 2023 Wyoming State Pumpkin Championship Weigh-Off and Oktoberfest.
The crowd cheered as one giant specimen after another picked up speed and threw pieces of pumpkin flying in impact with the ground, building up to the grand finale — the three biggest dive-bombing and destroying a 1969 Winnebago donated by Young’s Camper Repair.
First, The Weigh-Off
The last of the pumpkins to drop were the 2023 champion and runner-up.
Ron Hoffman placed second with a massive 1,362-pound entry. And the winner was a 1,399-pound behemoth named “Leather Tuscadero” grown by Wyoming’s giant pumpkin king and hometown Worland favorite Jay Richard.
Growers from across Wyoming brought their best pumpkins, zucchinis and watermelons to be weighed on the Cowboy State Daily scale. Hundreds of hours of dedication went into each fruit (and yes, they’ll all fruits), and the growers were eager to compare and share their results.
Richard, who also was emcee for the event, said he was thrilled by how many people attended, saying it was more than at the pumpkin weigh-off he attended last weekend in Littleton, Colorado.
“We have double the people and double the height,” he said, referencing the 200-foot crane that stood waiting for the grand finale. “We’re not comparing anything here. Just saying.”
Matt Winey came to Worland from Rapid City, South Dakota, to oversee the weigh-off for the Great Pumpkin Commonwealth. He runs the Rapid City Weigh-Off and found the small-town atmosphere a welcome break from more intense competitions.
“We have a lot of politics, security, cleanup and time restrictions we have to deal with (in Rapid City),” he said. “Here, it’s relaxed. I really like these small-town weigh-offs better.”
Many Personal Bests
Throughout the morning and early afternoon, growers stood by as their prized fruits were placed on the scale.
Winey and Hoffman diligently stuck their heads under each massive pumpkin to ensure they had no cracks or holes that would disqualify them from competition. At the same time, Richard shared the stories behind each pumpkin and their growers.
All 21 passed inspection, which led to many growers hitting new personal bests.
Eight-year-old Ananias Williams grew his pumpkin “Nope” (named while it was being weighed) in Worland. The result of his care was a 211-pound gourd.
Winey declared Worland the “zucchini capital of the world” for the 21 entries in the weigh-off, some of which topped 11 pounds. And there were several surprises on the scale.
No pumpkin grower knows the actual weight of their pumpkins until they hit the scale, and sometimes pumpkins can be deceptively heavier or lighter than they appear.
Milli Shelton of Riverton was surprised when her pumpkin, estimated to weigh 577 pounds, had an actual weight of 624 pounds. Meanwhile, Dustin and Amanda Grabbs’ pumpkin weighed 607 pounds, which was 80 pounds lighter than its measurements suggested.
They also got a consolation prize in a unanimous decision that theirs was the prettiest of the giant pumpkins at the championship, with a brilliant orange color to its shiny skin.
“If there were a calendar for pumpkins, this is it,” Richard said.
This One’s For Steve
The biggest crowd gathered at the end of the weigh-off to see the two biggest pumpkins, grown by Richard and Hoffman.
Having already won two other weigh-offs in recent weeks, Richard’s entry was his third largest, “Leather Tuscadero.” The pumpkin grew in a traditional pumpkin patch outside his greenhouse, and even Richard admitted he didn’t give it as much attention as he traditionally would.
One of the keys to giant pumpkins is the soil the plant grows in, which can take up to five years to reach maximum potency. Richard could afford to let Leather do its thing, and it exceeded his expectations.
When Hoffman’s pumpkin hit the scale, it was a massive 1,362 pounds. It took several minutes for it to be properly secured in a harness before being lifted onto the scale by a forklift.
Leather was the last pumpkin weighed at the 2023 Wyoming State Pumpkin Championship Weigh-Off.
Its weight was worth the wait. Leather took first place at 1,399 pounds.
Richard got emotional once his pumpkin won the prize.
He told the enthused crowd that his brother, Steve Richard, passed away in July and that he had dedicated this growing season, his best by a significant margin, to his brother’s memory.
“I think he put his finger on the scale for me a little bit,” he said.
Once the weigh-off was finished, everyone started making their way to the parking lot and the waiting 1969 Winnebago motorhome. By the end of the afternoon, it would be filled with pumpkin guts.
The only thing more exciting than seeing how much a pumpkin weighs is watching how much damage it causes when dropped from a great height.
Leather and three other pumpkins would soon rise over 170 feet and mark the end of the event by plummeting to the ground. Young’s Camper Repair donated the motorhome for the noble cause of seeing it get crushed under the weight of the giant pumpkins.
Once properly secured, each pumpkin made the ascent until it looked small enough to be supermarket-size. After a countdown, they went into freefall before hitting the ground with a thunderous boom.
The crowd quickly learned that pumpkins violently explode upon impact. A shower of wet pumpkin pieces accompanied each drop.
Leather might have the distinction of being the heaviest pumpkin ever dropped in Wyoming and its impact was the most dramatic, leaving a sizeable pile of mush.
The Winnebago held up surprisingly well as other pumpkins completely redesigned the interior and added several new skylights to the roof. By the end, it was well beyond Young’s Camper Repair’s ability to restore.
Tomorrow Is Theirs
Between the first-place finish and the Winnebago ride, Leather had one more important purpose to fulfill. Richard carved his prize pumpkin open and allowed its seeds to be taken. Children were even encouraged to crawl inside for photos.
The 2023 growing season surpassed Richard’s wildest expectations. While he has every intention of continuing his work to grow massive pumpkins, he is savoring this surreal moment.
“It’ll never happen like this again, three first-place finishes in three weeks. But I’m going to be working harder. And we’ve got some great growers coming up in the next few years,” he said.
As Richard said this, he gave a knowing look to Chad Kurtenbach from Lovell, who entered an 892-pound pumpkin in the championship. Kurtenbach is a relatively new grower who’s found success with Richard’s help and encouragement.
One of the greatest prizes for many was seeing how many children and young adults entered pumpkins and zucchini into the championship. Richard encourages all of them and believes they will surpass his skill in time, even giving away his seeds free so everyone has a chance to learn and grow.
Timing is one of his secrets to success. This year, he timed each competition perfectly and had the best year of his pumpkin-growing career.
A Great Season
The Wyoming championship capped the best season of Richard’s pumpkin growing career. He arrived as a two-time champion already this season and was poised to clinch the state title in Worland.
On Sept. 23, Richard won the first Center Street Pumpkin Festival in Logan, Utah, with his best pumpkin of the year, “Marion,” which weighed in at 1,784 pounds. Then on Sept. 30, his second-best pumpkin, “Joanie,” won the Jared’s Pumpkin Weigh-off in Littleton, Colorado, at 1,686 pounds.
The Wyoming State Champion Weigh-Off was never going to be an easy victory for Richard. Hoffman, his friend and fellow pumpkin grower, brought a massive pumpkin from Riverton to the weigh-off.
“I’ve had a lot of good pumpkins lose to Ron,” Richard told Cowboy State Daily. “In the past, I’ve always been the bridesmaid, never the bride.”
However, there was no competition amongst the growers. Despite the desire to outdo themselves and each other, a sense of camaraderie was evident. Hoffman helped Richard build his custom pumpkin-growing greenhouse.
Saturday also realized another bucket-list goal for Richard, as Leather gave him a combined weight of 4,869 pounds for his three largest pumpkins this season. He needed to surpass 4,300 pounds to earn his Grower Gen2 Jacket, usually only earned by five or six growers a year.