NAPA, Calif. — In a region known for its vineyards and wineries, John Hawkley grows pumpkins.
Big pumpkins. Pumpkins so big he needs a forklift to move them. Pumpkins that can bring him a paycheck worth thousands of dollars.
Hawkley thinks big — over 2,000 pounds or more — and the rewards lie in the contests he attends, not the pies.
“I grew up in Napa but wasn’t interested in growing pumpkins until 10 years ago,” he said. “That was about the time I watched a couple of local people load a huge pumpkin on a carrier to take to a weigh-off.”
He said he was fascinated.
“That season I grew a 200-pound one and was hooked,” he said.
Hawkley said growers in the area help each other produce the big ones, which is extremely difficult. Pests such as beetles and white flies can attack the big gourds. Soil-borne diseases are also a threat.
Several weigh-offs take place each year in California, and the winning pumpkins are getting bigger, along with the crowds — and the paychecks.
This year’s winning pumpkin at the Half Moon Bay, Calif., contest tipped the scales at 1,910 pounds and garnered a cash prize of $11,460 for the winner, Cindy Tobeck of Little Rock, Wash.
The path to a winning pumpkin starts with the right seeds, which he keeps from year to year and swaps with other competitive growers.
“In April, I start the seeds indoors in quart-sized cups in a preheated, insulated hot house,” he said. “In two days I have a plant and in six to eight days I begin to see baby pumpkins that I transfer to mini-greenhouses and then outside.”
He said he needs 750 square feet per plant for the big ones.
This year’s winner, Tobeck, told an NBC reporter that she regularly sent pumpkin samples to a laboratory for tests so she could adjust her fertilizer blend.
Hawkley began competing for prize money in 2012 and won a Morgan Hill, Calif., weigh-off with a 1,647-pounder that was a record.
In 2014, he was the first person in the U.S. to grow a 1-ton pumpkin, which weighed 2,058 pounds.
After that win, the New York Botanical Society flew Hawkley, his wife and the pumpkin — in a specialty–built crate — to New York. The pumpkin went on display and Hawkley appeared on TV shows. The society harvested the seeds and mailed them back to Hawkley.
Hawkley still holds the state and Half Moon Bay Pumpkin Weigh-Off records.
“Contrary to popular opinion, growers do not make a batch of pumpkin pies after competitions,” he said. “Most of the big ones are not really edible. People are fascinated by the big pumpkins and want to display them. There are large casinos in Las Vegas that buy the huge ones at 40 cents to $1 a pound just for displays.”
When he does sell one of the scale-busting pumpkins, he wants the seeds returned. They are valuable for their genetics, he said.
Jesse Ramer, interim executive director of the Napa County Farm Bureau, pointed out Hawkley’s contribution to agriculture.
“We have the greatest farmers in the world here in the winegrape business,” he said. “I think it is important to spotlight other folks that are doing other interesting projects. We are pleased to have John as a Farm Bureau member.”
Hawkley trades seeds with growers all over the world. After the season is over, he gets envelopes with return addresses from people wanting seeds. Clubs use them for fundraisers or for members to grow their own.
“We in the Napa Valley have a history of world record holders,” he said. “But the biggest challenge is keeping the pumpkins growing as long as possible while keeping them whole.”
Hometown: Napa, Calif.
Occupation: Competitive pumpkin grower
Family: Wife, Patty, three grown children and one grandchild
Quote: “Growing pumpkins takes an extreme amount of labor and love from April through July 1. After that you hope to see the fruits of your labors.”