Days after devastating fires in the North Bay threatened to incinerate Russ Pingrey’s 2,000-pound pumpkin—along with his Santa Rosa home—the gargantuan gourd earned the hobbyist grower the title of 2017 Grand Champion at the 27th annual Giant Pumpkin Weigh-off at Uesugi Farms in San Martin.
Pingrey’s giant pumpkin earned him a $14,000 paycheck (at $7 per pound).
“I thought I had a chance,” said Pingrey of his first-place gourd. He had originally planned to enter in the Half Moon Bay competition one week earlier, but he was delayed due to the the wildfires that surrounded his home and continue to burn. “I woke up Monday morning and there was fire all around me.”
The Tubbs Fire was only a half mile from his house Oct. 9, so his family packed up a tent trailer and were ready for evacuation orders, which came later that day. His house and his prize pumpkins were in jeopardy.
“We evacuated but (the firefighters) were able to hold the line on Badger Road (about half a mile north). It was kind of a stressful time,” said Pingrey, a letter carrier by trade who also grows pumpkins on his one-acre property. “(The winning pumpkin) used to be called ‘Gourdo,’ but after surviving the fire I changed its name to ‘Fireball.’”
Pingrey was able to return to his home on Monday, Oct. 9, after the evacuation orders were lifted. With uncertainty the fires could threaten again, however, he was going to skip the San Martin competition as well.
“I wasn’t going to come, but my wife said, ‘Just go. We’ve (evacuated) twice before. We know what to do,’” Pingrey said.
Pingrey headed down to San Martin with “Fireball,” and ended up with the $14,000 top prize.
“There’s not a lot of people who have grown 2,000-pound or more pumpkins. I was very excited,” Pingrey said. “Honestly, I was happy to get away (from the fires) somewhere.”
Pingrey is back home now, where firefighters have made progress on the fires, he said, but his first-place pumpkin remains in San Martin.The grand champion pumpkin and other select pumpkins will be on display and available for photo opportunities through October.
As of Oct. 17, the Tubbs Fire, one of seven currently active in Sonoma, Napa, Mendocino and Lake counties, was 82 percent contained and has burned 36,432 acres, according to The Press Democrat in Santa Rosa. The Sonoma County fires had burned 102,785 acres and killed at least 22 people in the county, according to Cal Fire.
During the Oct. 14 competition in San Martin, the massive pumpkins were lifted with a forklift onto a giant electronic scale with a custom-built harness, under the watchful eye of officials from the Great Pumpkin Commonwealth International Competition organization.
In 2016, Napa resident Leonardo Urena’s 2016 first-place pumpkin weighed in at 1,937 pounds.
A slew of proud contenders from throughout the west coast competed for over $25,000 in prize money.
Uesugi, the state’s third biggest pumpkin grower, has also bought Spena Farms patch at Bailey and Santa Teresa, which added another 300 acres of growing land, boosting its farmland from 800 to 1,100 acres locally. The company grows 250 acres of pumpkins, 5,000 acres of peppers and 1,000 acres of sweet corn across the state, according to manager Pete Aiello.
The family-run Uesugi Farms Pumpkin Park (14485 Monterey Road in San Martin), now in its 32nd year of operation, encompasses 43 acres and more than 15 attractions. It is open from 9am to 7pm Monday through Thursday and until 9pm on the weekend.