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The Great Pumpkin has arrived

"The third week in July my biggest pumpkin grew 30 pounds a day for 10 days." -- David Starner (Echo Press photo by Jo Colvin)1 / 2
David Starner of Hoffman grew this pumpkin that, as of September 4, weighed 1,029 pounds. Throughout the month of July, the pumpkin grew anywhere from 20 to 30 pounds a day. The weight is estimated by taking three measurements - circumference, and height from ground to ground from both front to back and side to side. (Echo Press photo by Jo Colvin)2 / 2

Linus from the famed Peanuts cartoon can finally say, "I told you so."

The Great Pumpkin has arrived - and it's in David Starner's garden.

As of September 4, the gigantic orange blob lying amidst a sea of green vines and leaves on Starner's farm near Hoffman reached a hefty 1,029 pounds. This substantial squash helped Starner reach his long-time goal of growing a 1,000-pound pumpkin.

Which begs the question, "Why?"

Because a seed was planted in 2002 when a Hoffman resident decided to pit local growers against each other to see who could raise the largest pumpkin. Starner, a former agriculture teacher who was "born a farmer and will die a farmer," was eager to join in.

That year his puny 60-pound pumpkin was squashed by one that weighed 182 pounds.

But his obsession had taken root.

The next year his 242-pound pumpkin earned him third place honors. The third year of the competition he was the victor with a 312-pound trophy vegetable.

The next year, Starner was disappointed when no one wanted to keep the contest going. So he made it a challenge to himself.

"I am going to do this every year until I raise one that is 1,000 pounds," Starner vowed. "That is what keeps driving me."

In 2006 he got closer with a 606-pound pumpkin. In 2008, for the first time he took his prolific pumpkin to an official weigh-in site and contest in Stillwater, where 707 pounds earned him 10th place.

The next three years Mother Nature and untimely vacations put an end to his growth spurt.

"Different things went wrong," he lamented. "Last year in August there was a wind that broke off 70 percent of the leaves. Two years ago I went to Hawaii for two weeks and didn't get it moved correctly. I've had some challenges."

This year, on April 12 Starner filed the edges of six Atlantic Giant pumpkin seeds (the seed is critical) so they would absorb water. He soaked them for 12 hours and planted them in little pots that he set on his kitchen counter.

They emerged seven days later, and on April 23 he put them in larger pots.

In the meantime, he started preparing the seeds' new outdoor home. He worked the 30-by-35-foot patch with a cultivator and brought in compost. In four spots he buried a heating cable in the soil to keep it at 70 degrees. He also built a mini greenhouse over each spot, complete with a heat lamp to keep the air temperature at 70 degrees.

"There's no doubt that's why I had more success," Starner said of his pre-planting prepartions.

May 7 was the "magic day" when the seeds went into the ground. Starner threw the two extra seeds near his watermelon patch and planted the other four in their specially-prepared incubator. A pig farmer, he had lots of manure to spread over the seeds. He also incorporated bacteria into the soil that is supposed to aid in root growth.

The four seeds took off, with two in particular showing promise of giant proportions. When the first flowers bloomed he hand pollinated them and monitored the vines - moving them and cutting off unnecessary flowers and tertiary vines. This was so that all the energy would go to one giant squash.

Starner carefully nurtured his babies, at first covering them with a T-shirt each night so they wouldn't get cold, then using a blanket as they got bigger. He made sure they got just the right amount of water and he turned them as needed.

Their growth astonished the veteran farmer/gardener. Throughout the month of July, the pumpkins grew anywhere from 20 to 30 pounds a day.

"The third week in July my biggest pumpkin grew 30 pounds a day for 10 days," he said incredulously. "It grew 300 pounds in 10 days! I couldn't believe it."

The weight of the pumpkins is estimated by taking three exact measurements in inches (circumference, and height from ground to ground from both front to back and side to side). A chart produced by a grower's association factors in the total inches and provides a weight that is 95 percent accurate.

Although the growth of Starner's biggest squash slowed down in August, it still reached weight increases of 8 to 16 pounds a day. The pumpkin reached its maximum weight by the end of August.

But Starner is ecstatic with his home-grown results this year. He will take the giant to the weigh-off in Stillwater on October 13. He is also considering taking the second biggest, which reached about 850 pounds, to Apple Jack Orchards in Delano on September 29.

But it won't end there. Whether he wins or loses, Starner has every intention of trying to grow an even greater pumpkin next year.

After all, the world record is 1,802 pounds.