It's the great pumpkin, Lennoxville!
With fall officially here, it's time for Lennoxville, Que.'s annual Giant Pumpkin Festival, where people can see pumpkins that weigh as much as 680 kilograms.
The festival — which is taking place at the Amédée Beaudoin community centre Sunday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. — is a family event with bouncy castles, a petting zoo, a farmer's market, music and even horse-drawn carriages.
But the biggest attraction are those pumpkins.
Mike Macdonald and some of his friends started the festival in 1991 when they started growing giant pumpkins and wanted to show off their agricultural skills to the community.
"When I first started growing them, no one had ever seen those before. They were just this incredible thing… You know, something you don't see everyday and it's only in the fall you see them," he said.
"It was a little novelty, and I thought it would be kind of neat to put something on a table beside the market there and it went from there."
Giant pumpkins can't hold their weight, so farmers have to use makeshift baskets made of straps to lift them without cracking them. (Submitted by Alexandre Lemire)
These days, the borough of Lennoxville runs the festival and competition, which varies in size from year to year with as many as 20 giant pumpkins on display or as few as seven. This year, Macdonald said he expects to see about a dozen.
He's not sure who's the frontrunner this year.
"You always get surprised. There's always people that come in from elsewhere that you have never seen before and they come in with a pumpkin that they've grown," he said. "Now that makes it interesting."
Giant pumpkins are not a practical vegetable. They aren't sweet like sugar pumpkin, are too fibrous to cook and can't hold their own weight. Farmers have to create makeshift baskets out of straps to carry them without cracking them.
People like Macdonald get satisfaction from knowing they can brag about having the biggest pumpkin in town, and seeing their community react to the amazing fruit of their labour.
But, this year was a bad year for giant pumpkins because of all the rain, said Macdonald. His pumpkins are on the smaller side this year, but he isn't discouraged.
He says it was a rough year to be a farmer and he had enough on his hands dealing with his cattle and the effects of all that precipitation.
"Everything was going so bad that the pumpkins weren't going the greatest and I gave up on them," he admits. "That's what I did. And when you do that, well, you can't expect too much.".
"But there's a few of the guys that really kept with it and anyway worked a lot harder than I did. And they have some pretty good pumpkins."
Alexandre Lemire and the pumpkin he brought to the Ormstown pumpkin weight off, left, and the pumpkin he brought to the 2021 Lennoxville Giant Pumpkin Festival. (Submitted by Alexandre Lemire)
Alexandre Lemire started growing giant pumpkins three years ago after being inspired by Macdonald's crops. Last year, his biggest pumpkin weighed 704 kilograms.
This year, he says he was disappointed he couldn't beat last year's performance because the weather conditions were poor, with a lot of rain, cooler temperatures and cloudy days. There were also more invasive insects than usual, he said. His other crops were also under strain this summer.
"I would have liked to grow a 1,500 to 2,000 pound (680- to 900-kilogram) pumpkin this year, but unfortunately it won't be possible," said Lemire.
"It's satisfying, but every year you want to outdo yourself, the fun challenge is always to go bigger."
His pumpkins are staying in the 550 to 600 kilogram range, he said.
"We really do it for the pride and the honour to have done it, more than it is to eat," said Lemire.
What future for giant pumpkins?
With climate change, challenging conditions for pumpkins may become more common, said McGill University plant sciences professor, David Wees.
Though pumpkins need a lot of water to grow, too much of it can lead to diseases, like fungus, rot and mould. A common pumpkin disease is powdery mildew, a growth that Wees describes as "sprinkled powdered sugar on the leaves." And too much water in the soil can damage roots.
"The wetter it is, the more likely it is to get the disease. A lot of wet weather in late summer, early fall can do a lot of damage to pumpkins and other vegetables."
Every year, farmers have a giant pumpkin weigh-off to see who can grow the biggest, heaviest vegetable. (Submitted by Alexandre Lemire)
But there are ways around the difficult weather, said Wees, such as "tempo greenhouses" farmers can set up for a few months.
These temporary greenhouses, known as high tunnels, keep plants warm and safe from excessive rain.
"We grow a lot of tomatoes here at McDonald campus using the high tunnels and you can see the difference," he said.
"The ones that are in the field, all the leaves have gone mouldy, whereas the ones in the high tunnels, the leaves are so much cleaner and drier and therefore a lot healthier."
But for Macdonald, growing giant pumpkins is a past-time, not his primary goal as a farmer.
"Worried about giant pumpkins? You know, that's not my bread and butter, it's my cattle and my crops. I'm more afraid for those, but you have to adapt," he said.