By Bethany Bray
---- — TOPSFIELD — The Topsfield Fair crowned a hometown winner in last night’s giant pumpkin weigh-off: Woody Lancaster, who grew a 1,746.5-pound whopper in his Topsfield yard.
“It was just a special seed, a lot of hard work, and it just worked,” said Lancaster.
Last night was the first time Lancaster has earned the Topsfield Fair’s top prize. He’s been growing giant pumpkins for 15 years; he took second place last year with a 1,649-pounder.
Smiling, Lancaster admitted he was feeling “a little weak-kneed” once he found out he was the 2013 winner.
This year’s weigh-off drew just 28 entries this year, roughly half of an average year. Growers chalked it up to a hard season with erratic weather.
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“It was a very, very tough year,” said George Hoomis of Ipswich, whose pumpkin weighed in at 1,442.5 pounds — his personal best in 18 years of growing. “Most people are happy just to have something here (at the fair).”
Lancaster’s peach-colored gourd was the last of the night to be weighed. Once the official weight was announced, his wife, Cindy, son, Alan, and many of the other growers enveloped Lancaster in hugs, handshakes and claps on the back.
There is year-round camaraderie among members of the New England Giant Pumpkin Growers Association, who spend more than half the year coaxing tiny seeds into monstrous pumpkins.
They swap seeds, meet often and will call each other for growing advice, said Hoomis.
“We all compete, but we all help each other,” he said.
Pumpkins the size of boulders lined the Topsfield Fair arena last night, waiting to be lifted onto the scale by a forklift. Some of the gourds were picture-perfect, while others were misshapen. Their color ranged from pink to green, grey to all shades of orange.
“We’re not looking at a beauty contest, it’s all about the weight,” the night’s emcee, Goffstown, N.H., pumpkin grower Jim Beauchemin, reminded the crowd.
Last night, growers chatted and joked with each other as the pumpkins were weighed. Just after Ipswich grower Armand Michaud’s 1,313-pound pumpkin was weighed, other growers came up to him and said — only half joking — that they wanted some of his pumpkin’s seeds.
“Next year’s season started today,” Hoomis said, chuckling.
Peter DeNigris took second place with a 1,544-pound pumpkin he grew in his West Gloucester yard. He’s been growing giant pumpkins for more than 15 years and took first place at the 2011 Topsfield Fair with a 1,668-pounder.
This year’s entry was his “last chance” pumpkin, the only fruit that didn’t fail in a tough growing season. He started the seed indoors and transplanted it outside April 28, he said.
“It was a slow grower, so it teased me all summer long,” DeNigris said.
So why spend all this time and effort on growing pumpkins?
“It’s fun,” DeNigris answered, breaking into a smile.
Last night’s contest had pumpkins grown throughout Massachusetts, Vermont, Rhode Island, Maine and New Hampshire.
No records were broken this year. That honor rests with Ron Wallace of Rhode Island, who brought the world’s first-ever 1 ton pumpkin — a whopping 2,009 pounds — to last year’s fair.
The 2013 Topsfield Fair runs through Columbus Day, Oct. 14. The annual fair parade through Topsfield is this morning, 9 a.m. For a full schedule, see www.topsfieldfair.org.
Bethany Bray can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter @SalemNewsBB.
2013 winners: Topsfield Fair giant pumpkin weigh-off