Half Moon Bay
Great Pumpkin Weigh-Off History
In the early 1930's, teenager John Arata and his brother Clarence began planting pumpkin seeds to feed the family's hogs. One day they were hauling some of their pumpkins along Highway One back to the farm when a passing motorist stopped and asked if he could buy a few. The Arata's sold the pumpkins for a quarter and a booming pumpkin-picking business and tourist attraction was born. Pumpkin production grew from this humble beginning until today the area surrounding Half Moon Bay produces about 3,500 tons of pumpkins each year.
The first weigh-off was held in 1974 when officials from the city of Half Moon Bay including Mayor Melvin Mello challenged Circleville, Ohio, then proclaiming itself "Pumpkin Capital of the World", to a weigh-off competition in search of the world's biggest pumpkin. John Minaidis of Half Moon Bay took top prize with a 132 lb. pumpkin and secured for Half Moon Bay the title "Pumpkin Capital of the World."
John went on to win the next two years with a 273 and 208 pound pumpkin respectively. Pumpkins that large were practically unheard of then but today top pumpkins can weigh up to and even more than 1000 lbs. These giants have seeds the size of peach pits and typically gain 25 to 30 pounds a day during a typical growing season lasting from April to October. Once they are cut from their vine they lose on average 6-8 pounds per day. Growers cut their pumpkins as late as possible to allow for maximum weight gain and cover them with wet tarps to minimize water loss. Some growers tape water bottles to their pumpkins in the hope of squeezing in a last pound or two of water before the weigh-off.
To grow the giants you need good seed, lots of fertilizer, plenty of water, rich soil, mild temperatures, long days, and plenty of TLC. Many growers add their own secrets to this mix. By overwhelming majority the largest pumpkins come from the Atlantic Giant variety but past winners have included the Big Max and Big Moon varieties. The Big Moon was named after Half Moon Bay!
About 80 to 100 growers from Washington, Oregon, and California come to the weigh-off each year to swap seeds, growing tips, and compete. The lucky grower with the largest pumpkin wins a highly coveted title, a cash prize, and the notoriety that goes with it. Their pumpkin will be the mascot of the Half Moon Bay Art and Pumpkin Festival both taking the position of honor at it's parade and being prominently displayed for all to admire. Thousands line up each year to have their picture taken with the noble giant.
For the past few years Safeway has provided all the prize money for the weigh-off. And the prize money can be considerable. First prize is a whopping $6 per pound. Add to that the aftermarket for the giant seed where the winners could receive as much as $10 per seed and you can see there is more than just pride at stake.
With so much riding on this contest it shouldn't be surprising that the weighing is handled by the San Mateo County Agricultural Commissioner's Office of Weights, Sealers, and Measures, using a precisely calibrated two-ton capacity digital scale. If two pumpkins manage to weigh exactly the same then a combination of measurements including height and circumference are used to determine the winner. This was a lesson learned in 1994 when Joel Holland and Pete Glasier both grew 696 lb. pumpkins.
Since the pumpkin's humble introduction to the Half Moon Bay Area in the early 1930's it has grown into source of tradition and joy. The weigh-off and associated festival attract over 250,000 people each year along with countless thousands who view the winners on television and read about them in Bay Area newspapers.