Minnesota 11-year-old follows in family 'root' steps by growing 100-pound pumpkin
When all-around achiever Max Schmidt-Olson isn't playing sports, singing in honor choir, helping out at home or going to school, he grows and sells pumpkins, ranging from tangerine-sized decorative squash to a whopper that’s almost as big as Max is — a 100-pound Big Moon-variety squash.
MOORHEAD, Minn. — Max Schmidt-Olson comes by his green thumb naturally.
His grandpa, Rick Schmidt, is a retired farmer whose own dad gardened. And his great-great uncles, Will and Russ Almendinger, were two of the three founders of Rum River Tree Farm and Nursery in Oak Grove, Minnesota, one of the biggest tree farms in the state.
Now at age 11 (he turns 12 Oct. 15), Max is following in the family “root” steps.
When he’s not playing sports, helping out at home or going to school, Max grows and sells pumpkins, ranging from tangerine-sized decorative squash to a whopper that’s almost as big as Max is — a 100-pound Big Moon-variety squash.
“This is the first year we did the big, big ones,” says Max, who plays guard for the Horizon Middle School football team and estimates his own weight at 120. “It took me and mom and then me and my grandpa to lift it.”
Max’s pumpkin-growing venture started four years ago, when he decided he’d like to try growing his own Halloween pumpkins instead of buying them.
His very first effort was busted — or maybe “squashed” — when Max planted the seeds on a dirt hill on his Grandpa Schmidt's land near Detroit Lakes. The deer ate the plants.
So Max moved his next patch into his grandpa’s large garden, where it would grow to take up to half the space.
Since then, he has planted pumpkins every May, watered and weeded them all summer, then harvested and sold them in early fall.
Last year, Max planted "Little Jack" seeds, which would produce 400 of the tiny gourds by the end of the season. He priced the popular decorating pumpkins at $1 for two of them and sold them all.
He’s also planted Jack-o-Lanterns, a mid-sized, bright-orange, oblong pumpkin which is ideal for carving . Last year, the pumpkins didn’t grow as big, so he charged $5 apiece. This year, they grew much bigger, so he’ll charge $10 apiece.
Also this year, he planted sugar pie pumpkins , a small, round pumpkin with a dry, sweet, fine-grained flesh which lends itself well to baking and cooking. A hail storm in June beat up most of those plants, he says, although he’s not one to give up easily. He plans to plant more sugar pies next year.
And then there are the Big Moons , which can tip the scale at over 200 pounds. The internet is packed with tips on how to grow gargantuan gourds, suggesting everything from thinning plants to one pumpkin per vine to supplementing them with milk to help them grow to sumo size.
But Max didn’t need to do anything fancy to grow his 100-pounder. His real secret, he says, is relying on the Whiskey Creek near his patch to water his pumpkins. “We don’t have any running water out there so we just use the creek. That seems to work really good.”
Max also has heard of people who will rotate their pumpkins so they don’t have flat sides or whitish spots. But he prefers that his pumpkins grow au naturel. “I think it gives them more character,” he says.
In fact, he’s enthused about the strange shapes that his Jack-o-Lantern-variety pumpkins sometimes form, as they can make more interesting shapes to decorate.
At the same time, he's always looking for ways to improve his operation. Next spring, he hopes to start the seeds even earlier by learning from his grandpa how to germinate them in cups placed on heating pads indoors.
Max sells most of his pumpkins by word of mouth and every year his customer base grows a little more.
Last year, he made $200 off pumpkin sales. He followed his standard formula for dealing with extra income: He invested most of it in his Edward Jones account, set some aside to donate to the family’s church, St. Joseph Catholic Church in Moorhead, and spent a little by treating himself to a curling broom and a hoverboard.
He plans to use his growing nest egg for future big-ticket items like college, a house and a car.
“He keeps telling me he wants to retire at 55 like my parents did,” his mom, Jennifer, says, smiling. “Ever since he was little, I’ve told him to put half of what he earns in savings and a lot of times he will wind up putting most of it in savings.”
Max does the same with the money he makes mowing neighbors’ lawns as well as crushing and recycling aluminum cans.
He also helps with lawnwork and housework both at home with mom and at his dad Josh’s household in Mapleton.
“He’s always liked to help. Always,” Jennifer says. “I have him most of the time, so ever since he was little I would put him in the laundry basket and take him with me down to the laundry room. Ever since he was little, he’s known how to run the dryer or clean the toilets or vacuum. He likes to cook. He likes to bake. He knows how to clean, so we’re good. He’s well-rounded.”
Max is also well-rounded in school. Besides schoolwork, football and curling, he juggles tae kwon do, golf, honor choir, orchestra and book club.
His sports involvement requires extra strength-training and conditioning, although one wonders if lugging around all those pumpkins creates its own type of strength-training.
He’s also happy to give advice to other kids who might want to start a side business.
“Just do what you know,” he says. "And research how to do stuff if you don’t know. Put some in savings so you can do stuff in the future.”
There you have it. A year's worth of TED Talks in three sentences.
“I’m very proud of him,” Jennifer says.