Uesugi Farms’ pumpkin patch in San Martin has grown like one of its prize-winning pumpkins.
In the 1980s, it was a 5-acre plot that just sold pumpkins and the biggest one it had weighed 250 pounds. Today, it’s a huge 50-acre October theme park that brings in 100,000 people, has trains, food, rides, a petting zoo, a corn maze, great live bands and its biggest attraction—cannons that shoot pumpkins.
This year’s biggest pumpkin weighed in at 1,937 pounds—close, but not quite the year’s biggest in California. Elk Grove had this year’s biggest at 1,944 pounds.
“It’s grown way more than I would have ever imagined,” said owner Pete Aiello, 41, whose father, Joe, started the patch in 1985 to give Pete and his brother something to do after school that would keep them out of trouble. “That was definitely a good decision,” he said.
Pumpkins are just one part of Uesugi’s business. The rest of the year it’s a major vegetable grower, producing acres of peppers, beans, corn, squash and strawberries. They thought the pumpkin patch would add to the company’s visibility.
The giant pumpkin contest was a side attraction originally, but then the family found out about a worldwide organization that sanctions pumpkin contests, Great Commonwealth Pumpkins. Once they became a sanctioned site, “we began playing with the big dogs,” including better known contests in Half Moon Bay and Elk Grove.
They also grew each year by adding food and attractions.
The farm’s name comes from George Uesugi, who owned it before the Aiellos bought it. Uesugi, a Japanese-American who fought against Japan in World War II, had his land taken from him and was put in an internment camp, even after fighting for the U.S. He built his way back in the 1950s, growing a vegetable business which he sold to the Aiellos in 1979.
This year’s giant pumpkin winner is Leonardo Urena, 48, from Napa, who has been growing pumpkins and entering contests for 14 years. He’s won others but only placed second last year in San Martin and wanted to win it for the first time.
“Sometimes you want a challenge in life,” said Urena, who came to the U.S. as a teen from Jalisco, Mexico, and is now a citizen. “This is like the Olympics as a grower. Who likes second place?”
He won $13,559 in champion prize money, which is $7 per pound of pumpkin. On Oct. 31 they will carve the pumpkin and Urena will remove the seeds to start on next year’s greatest pumpkin. It takes 100 days to grow a giant pumpkin and they can gain as much as 45 pounds a day. Urena began as a landscaper and picker at Hudson Vineyards in Napa, where they let him grow pumpkins in his spare time. The pumpkins kept getting bigger and he began entering contests. He’s won Half Moon Bay and Elk Grove in the past.
The world’s biggest pumpkin was grown in Europe and weighed 2,624 pounds. But, said Urena, it was grown in a greenhouse, which doesn’t present the same challenges as growing outdoors in varying climate.
In 2012, Uesugi had the heaviest pumpkin in the world at 2032 pounds, grown in Napa.
The biggest challenge is getting the pumpkin to the contest, said Urena. It requires a sling, a forklift, a flatbed truck and three very good friends to strap it down and keep it from cracking or letting the bottom get bashed and then rotting.
Uesugi Farms is open every day in October from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and until 9 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays.