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Thinking BIG in Ottertail

A total of 15 local growers participated in this year's Giant Pumpkin Weigh-Off, entering pumpkins from 64 to more than 700 pounds. Photo by - Marie Nitke1 / 6
Nicole Madsen and her daughter, Annie, of Fergus Falls, carve a pumpkin outside of the Williams Company Store at the Ottertail Pumpkin Festival. Photo by - Marie Nitke2 / 6
Kids enjoyed carving some of the smaller pumpkins. Photo by - Marie Nitke3 / 6
It took multiple people to load pumpkins during the contest. Photo by - Marie Nitke4 / 6
Dave Hawes, of Ottertail, uses a forklift to transport a giant pumpkin to a scale to be weighed for the Weigh-Off. Photo by - Marie Nitke5 / 6
Horse-drawn wagon rides are a favorite at the annual Ottertail Fall Festival. Photo by - Marie Nitke6 / 6

They're kind of a big deal.

Tipping the scales at 600, 700, even 800-plus pounds, the giant pumpkins at this year's Weigh-Off at the Ottertail Pumpkin Festival are not your average jack-o-lanterns.

For one thing, they can't simply be plucked off the vine and carried home -- it takes a forklift to move these orange monsters.

Joe Werner, of Richville, is a leading organizer behind the Ottertail Weigh-Off. Relatively new to growing giant pumpkins, he first heard of the hobby after seeing his uncle do it, and thought, "Well, I could do that."

So he did. His first year, he grew a 400-pounder. This year, just two years later, he grew a 618-pounder, earning him second place in the contest.

The winner, Perham's Rick Guck, took home the title of 2012 Pumpkinmaster with his massive 741-pound pumpkin.

In all, 15 local growers entered pumpkins in the weigh-off. Weights ranged from Guck's 741 pounds down to 64 pounds.

The secret to growing a giant pumpkin, said Werner, is good seeds, good soil, lots of water and the right amount of sunshine.

It's also important to keep the vines properly pruned and positioned, so that the pumpkin doesn't grow over - and eventually kill - its own vine.

Even with all that time and attention, success is never guaranteed. Giant pumpkins are known to split as they grow, and are just as susceptible to disease as any other plant. Of the nine plants Werner started out with this season, just the one pumpkin was suitable for competition.

Still, the fun of growing these great gourds makes all the work worth it. As last year's winner, Dave Hawes of Ottertail, explains with a laugh, "It's not a hobby, it's an illness."

This year, Hawes had his 854-pound pumpkin on display at the Ottertail Weigh-Off. He had previously entered it into the Stillwater Harvest Fest, where it won the 2012 Howard Dill Award -- just the one he was hoping to get -- and the award for Best Looking Pumpkin.

Pumpkins may only be entered into one contest, so he was unable to enter it into the local weigh-off.

Pumpkins at the bigger weigh-offs, such as the one in Stillwater, get to be well over 1,000 pounds. The largest pumpkin weighed this year, a 2,009-pounder grown by a Rhode Island man, set a new world record.

Being just two years old, the Ottertail Weigh-Off is smaller and friendlier to beginning growers.

Werner said the idea to start a weigh-off in this area grew out his own interest in the hobby, as well as the interests of others.

"We had enough people around interested in growing them, so I thought, 'Well geez, let's get them together and let them show off a little,'" he said.

He knew of no other giant pumpkin weigh-offs held anywhere in the area, so he figured it was time to get one started. His goal is, "to keep growing the interest in pumpkin growing -- and in this event."

The weigh-off is just one part of the Ottertail Pumpkin Festival, an annual event held every fall behind the Williams Company Store in downtown Ottertail.

The festival also features face painting, pumpkin carving, food, music and more.

Proceeds from the Pumpkin Festival went to the Otter Tail County School Backpack Program.

(Marie Nitke writes for the East Otter Tail Focus of Perham)