Grow Big or Go Home

Friendly competition
Giant-pumpkin growers Mark Rollins and Susie Zuerner at Mark’s farm.
Photo by Rachel Pressley

The Southern Appalachians are known for a comfortable climate and for extreme biodiversity — including pumpkins without limits. Susie Zuerner has been cultivating up to 994.5-pound pumpkins for the last ten years, stealing the show at the NC Mountain State Fair time and time again. Five years into her successful venture, she met Mark Rollins, who had entered his 1,118-pound pumpkin against hers in the annual contest. Despite the rivalry, the two hit it off, and now they talk nearly every day, helping one another grow — literally, and in their role as agriculturalists.

Zuerner and Rollins haul their colossal curcubits to weigh offs on tractors, showing around the state for prize money. Then the pumpkins travel the agritourism route, to corn mazes and other venues, and are even sometimes used in seasonal beer making. Only 700-1,000 people in the world grow like this; the current pumpkin world record stands at 2,624 lbs.

“You need about 1,200 square feet around each pumpkin to give its roots and vines enough room to spread and support the fruit,” explains Rollins. He grows in a field on his father-in-law’s land in Canton. “To give these plants their best chance, you have to put in an hour each day June through September,” reveals Zuerner. She tends to her pumpkins in her own backyard in Arden.

Having healthy soil is paramount in this competitive sport, since nurturing the roots is 60 percent of the process. Natural fertilizer (i.e. cow manure), proper nutrient levels in the soil, pest and disease prevention, protection from wild animals, and ongoing research are also necessary to stay in the game.

“There are about one million things that can happen to your pumpkin — and only 12 of those things are good for it,” says Rollins.

The NC Mountain State Fair happens Friday, Sept. 6 through Sunday, Sept. 15 at the Western North Carolina Agricultural Center (1301 Fanning Bridge Road, Fletcher). Check the Expo Building schedule for horticultural exhibits, including prize pumpkins.

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