Halloween pumpkins

Schnepf Farms' pumpkin patch in Queen Creek

Ralph Freso, Tribune file

There will be no shortage of pumpkins in Wade Kelsall’s pumpkin patch this October.

The farmer and his family have carefully tended 20 acres of the gourds all summer long near Duncan, anticipating their annual fall festival at Mother Nature’s Farm in Gilbert.

But the giant pumpkins — the heavyweights that growers from all over the state bring to the Kelsalls’ 20-year-old pumpkin weigh-off — those are another matter.

“Last year, we really were worried we’d have zero. And I’m more worried this year than I was last year,” says Kelsall, 44.

Every first weekend in October since 1990, the Kelsalls, who own and live on the 40-acre agritainment farm at Gilbert and Baseline roads, have hosted a competition for monstrous pumpkins.

Last year, when six entries showed up on weigh day, the winning orb tipped the scales at 382 pounds.

“The rules are pretty simple. We’re looking for the largest pumpkin grown in the state of Arizona, and it can’t be artificially inflated. Back in the days when the prize money was a lot higher, you had some problems with people cheating, but you don’t really get that anymore,” says Kelsall.

In past years, the farm could count on a small but strong contingent of mostly retired home hobby growers from places like Pinetop-Lakeside and Show Low, where cooler temperatures make pumpkin growing easier than in the Valley.

“It’s something you really have to want to do. Arizona’s not really a great place to grow large pumpkins. You can wind up putting a lot of time and energy in something that might or might not work. Or that might come up beautifully but then melt before you can get it to the contest,” he says.

It’s often a solitary pursuit that might take a grower season after season to perfect — and to share with friends or family.

“It’s one of those things where you work for years to hit on the secret to doing it, and you don’t tell anybody. Mostly, I think it’s neighbors or friends in garden clubs teaching each other, but it takes them awhile to trust someone with all the information they have. And a lot of times, if they move, they take their secrets with them,” says Kelsall.

He’s crossing his fingers that this isn’t the year when no pumpkin-laden pickup trucks arrive on weigh-off morning. But if that’s the case, the show will go on.

“It’s real interesting for a couple of minutes, and then you kind of want to go do something else — which is why we have all the other stuff going on every year. It’s our opening day.”

Attractions will include a pumpkin patch full of white, orange, red, blue, yellow and green pumpkins, activities for kids, hay rides, a harvest store with fall decor items and feeding of barnyard animals.

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