ELK GROVE -- Hundreds of giant pumpkin seeds changed hands Saturday in the pavilion at Elk Grove Park near the state capital, but none was more coveted than the "2,009 Wallace," dug from the guts of the first pumpkin to weigh more than a ton.
"This is the holy grail of pumpkin seeds," said renowned Napa grower Pete Glasier, introducing the final lot of the seed auction at the 2014 California Giant Pumpkin Growers Forum. "This is the hottest seed in the world right now."
If Half Moon Bay's annual autumn weigh-off is the Super Bowl of giant pumpkin growing, then the Elk Grove forum is the draft. Like an NFL team scouting a high draft pick, growers study every seed's performance and lineage.
This year's summit attracted about 100 people, from Bay Area hobbyists to many of Northern California's top competitive growers. They were there to network, share tips and -- most important -- acquire seeds.
The 2,009 Wallace, in everyday terms, is a 2,009-pound giant pumpkin grown in 2012 by Ron Wallace. Seeds from that leviathan last year produced three of the heaviest pumpkins ever grown, including the current world-record holder, a 2,032-pounder grown by Tim Mathison of Napa, and a 2,328-pound freak grown in Switzerland that would have shattered Mathison's mark if not for a crack that disqualified it from competition.
Jose Ceja, another Napa grower, snagged the 2,009 Wallace on Saturday with a bid of $450. But other sought-after seeds were simply given away, a sign of the collaborative spirit that prevails in the offbeat, obsessive world of growing Atlantic Giant pumpkins.
Growers try to get the most out of a seed through genetic experimentation. Mathison produced his recording-setting pumpkin by pollinating a 2,009 Wallace with a plant grown from the seed of a 1,554-pounder he'd raised in 2011.
But having a champion seed isn't enough. Competitive growers spend hundreds of hours in their patch over the summer, tinkering with new ways to spur growth and ward off bugs and rot.
As the Great Pumpkin Commonwealth's reigning "grower of the year," Mathison was asked to give a talk Saturday concerning his methods. The 57-year-old lumber salesman is coming off the best season in the history of growing giant pumpkins, raising three gourds in 2013 that weighed a combined 5,800.5 pounds.
But anyone looking for a science lesson Saturday was disappointed. Though Mathison is "nerdy" about looking after his plants, he pays less attention to chemical analyses of his soil than some other top growers. Burying himself in those reports, he said, "takes the fun out of it."
Instead he mixes data with intuition. Last year he kept his pumpkins warm at night by running space heaters inside tents made by laying tarpaulins over a frame of PVC pipes.
"The plants love it," Mathison said. "It's like a tropical forest."
Outdoor heating may be too extreme for the noncompetitive grower, but the forum yields plenty of information for amateur pumpkin cultivators, and handfuls of seeds.
Brent Bayon, of Livermore, has been coming to the Elk Grove forum for eight years. He grows giant pumpkins and other gourds as decorations for a harvest festival at his church.
Kurt Gustafson, 62, has raised giant pumpkins in his San Jose backyard the past four seasons. Coming to the summit allows him to rub elbows with the best growers in the world.
On Saturday he got several hundred dollars' worth of seeds for just $20 in raffle tickets. He chatted briefly with Mathison, who gave him a seed from a 1,894-pounder Mathison grew last year.
"This is absolutely the best avenue," said Gustafson, who grew a 900-pound pumpkin in 2012, "to come up and get basically world-class seeds for very little money."
Besides growers, the summit also attracts representatives of the niche industry that has sprung up around giant pumpkins. Frank and Gale Smith were advertising Shake and Grow, an amino acid-based stimulant they bill as an "afterburner" for plants.
Lee Perry, a retired mining geologist from Utah, salvages ring gaskets from oil rigs and welds them together to create steel "lifting rings" for hoisting giant pumpkins.
The apparatus is fitted with straps that cradle the pumpkin when it's lifted out of the patch or onto a scale, said Perry, who also works as a "hot shot driver," delivering urgently needed parts for oil companies. He makes the harness extra wide to put less pressure on the sides of the pumpkin.
"I am building what I consider the Lamborghini of rings," said Perry, 73.
There will likely be fewer pumpkins to hoist in 2014. The drought will cause growers to cut back this year, said Gary Miller, who won last year's Half Moon Bay weigh-off with a 1,985-pounder.
"People who were planning to grow nine pumpkins might grow six, and maybe they should cut it down to four or five," said Miller, of Napa. "Some people might not be able to grow at all."
But the well of enthusiasm for giant pumpkins is far from dry. Mathison remains transfixed by the miraculous growth of the Atlantic Giant, which swells from seedling to monster in just a few months.
Glasier, the 84-year-old "godfather" of the Napa growing scene, savors the camaraderie.
"There are no secrets. Everybody shares," said Glasier, who collects all the seeds for the Elk Grove auction and raffle. "I've met some of the greatest friends I've had in my life growing pumpkins."