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Contestants begin to arrive in Half Moon Bay for the 39th annual pumpkin weigh-off

By Aaron Kinney

HALF MOON BAY -- Katrina Starr watched nervously as her husband Thad's giant pumpkin was hoisted onto the scale at the Half Moon Bay weigh-off.

The massive gourd was the last to be weighed. Would it be heavy enough? Had it suffered rot or other disqualifying damage on the bottom since being put in the trailer on Friday? The harness cradling the pumpkin slipped for a moment, making a loud clang. Thad clutched his head in terror.

"It's the worst," Katrina said of the anticipation of Monday morning's official weighing. "Oh my gosh, it's just the worst."

No need to worry. Once safely on the scale, the pale orange, oblong monstrosity registered 1,775 pounds, breaking the California record and giving Thad his third victory at the 39th-annual Safeway World Championship Pumpkin Weigh-off.

The 45-year-old grower from Pleasant Hill, Ore., high-fived his 9-year-old daughter, Danika, who had picked the seed for the pumpkin and planted it in April. Katrina and their 7-year-old son, Derek, joined the celebration.

"It's awesome," said Starr. "It's the best I've ever done. I'm very proud of that."

Party on Main Street

Having won what Starr called the Super Bowl of West Coast pumpkin weigh-offs, it was fitting that the family headed south Monday afternoon for a trip to Disneyland. They'll be back in downtown Half Moon Bay this weekend for the 42nd annual Half Moon Bay Art & Pumpkin Festival, where the five heaviest gourds from the contest will be displayed.


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Starr will take home prize winnings of $10,650 -- $6 per pound -- for the mega-pumpkin. He would have earned a $25,000 bonus had he beaten the world record of 2,009 pounds set in September by a Rhode Island grower.

Steve Daletas, also of Pleasant Hill, gets $2,000 for second place with a 1,521 pounder, and John Hawkley, a Napa grower whose gourd weighed 1,480 pounds, wins $1,500 for third place overall and $1,000 for biggest California pumpkin. Farmer and Half Moon Bay City Councilman John Muller gets $500 for biggest Coastside pumpkin, a 480-pound specimen.

A crowd of roughly 200 people gathered in a parking lot off Main Street to see Monday's contest. Several dozen brightly dressed elementary school children sat on hay bales. The Half Moon Bay High School marching band blasted merry tunes.

But while Starr savored another win, Granite Bay grower Richard Westervelt, 76, endured a bitter disappointment. His 1,621-pound pumpkin, more than 300 pounds heavier than his previous best, was disqualified after contest officials found a tiny, barely perceptible hole on its blossom end that penetrated to the interior of the fruit.

"There's no words to say how I feel, especially it being 1,621 pounds," said Westervelt of the pumpkin, his last of the season. "It's the biggest one I've ever grown."

Late-appearing cracks, holes and rot comprise a grower's worst fear, undoing months of painstaking work. The gigantic fruits grow so fast, putting on 25 pounds a day or more, that it's common for them to burst open. Leonardo Urena, a Napa cultivator who won the 2011 contest in Half Moon Bay, didn't enter this year's competition because all his pumpkins split, said weigh-off spokesman Tim Beeman.

Final tilt

The first key to growing a steroidal pumpkin is the seed. All the top-weighing pumpkins come from a variety known as Atlantic Giant. After that it's a matter of time and money. Top growers spend six hours or more a day in the garden during the summer tending to their patch, experimenting with esoteric methods and materials, and thousands of dollars on fertilizer.

"It's just like any other gardening, just to the extreme," said Starr. "A lot of water and a lot of manure."

There are four Great Pumpkin Commonwealth-sanctioned weigh-offs in California and 94 worldwide, from Germany to New Zealand. On Saturday many of the same growers who entered the Half Moon Bay contest will descend on Uesugi Farms Pumpkin Park in Morgan Hill for the final California tilt of the year. Rules prohibit entering any one pumpkin into more than one contest, so growers will bring other products of the patch.

Ron Root, who won the Half Moon Bay weigh-off in 2010, came in seventh Monday with a 1,415 pounder. But there's a heavier squash waiting in the wings.

"I've still got a big monster for next week," he said.

Contact Aaron Kinney at 650-348-4357. Follow him at Twitter.com/kinneytimes.

Half Moon Bay Art & Pumpkin Festival
When: Oct. 13-14, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Where: Main Street between Kelly Avenue and Spruce Street, Half Moon Bay
What: Music, food, crafts, pumpkin-carving, parade (Saturday), pie-eating contests and more.
More information: Visit www.miramarevents.com/pumpkinfest