Even the sandy soil of Anoka knows it’s the Halloween Capital of the World.
That’s where Travis Gienger grew a 2,350-pound pumpkin that he hauled for 35 hours to Half Moon Bay, Calif., for the 47th annual Safeway World Championship Pumpkin Weigh-Off on Monday.
Gienger won the grand prize of $16,450 — $7 for every pound of his gargantuan gourd.
“It’s the heaviest pumpkin weighed in North America this year,” said Tim Beeman, who helps put on the Half Moon Bay Festival, which was canceled this year because of COVID-19. But a limited version of the pumpkin contest was held and livestreamed.
The Half Moon Bay pumpkin competition, Beeman said, is the “Super Bowl of weigh-offs in the pumpkin-growing community” and the star attraction of the festival.
Gienger, a horticulture teacher at Anoka Technical College, made the road trip with his fiancée, Megan Piffer. Another grower from Wisconsin Rapids, Wis., also made the trek with a 1,700-pound pumpkin that placed eighth. Forklifts carefully moved more than 30 competing pumpkins onto a giant scale during the competition.
Beeman said it’s fitting that Gienger won, given his roots in Anoka, the self-proclaimed Halloween Capital of the World. Half Moon Bay calls itself the Pumpkin Capital of the World, so it was a perfect marriage of the two cities.
“We loved getting to know” Gienger, Beeman said. “Like all Minnesotans, he’s just a straight shooter, very friendly. He was a colorful character. We really enjoyed him in every way.”
Gienger, 40, has been growing pumpkins for more than two decades and recently perfected soil conditions for the Atlantic Giant seed variety that’s cross-pollinated to produce massive pumpkins. Gienger said he’s entered other regional pumpkin competitions, though this was the first time he’s competed in California.
He raised the pumpkin — dubbed “Tiger King” after the popular Netflix show — in his Anoka backyard. It was a mere 274 pounds shy of smashing the world record of 2,624 pounds set in 2016 by Mathias Willemijns of Belgium at the Giant Pumpkin European Championship in Ludwigsburg, Germany.
At its peak, Tiger King was growing 53 pounds per day. Though Gienger didn’t weigh it one last time before heading west — he didn’t want to ruin the surprise — he trusted the pumpkin guts were heavy enough to place in the competition.
“We could’ve weighed it, but we didn’t. Instead we drove 2,100 miles, unknown,” he said.
A single crack in the pumpkin during the cross-country drive would have disqualified him from the contest, so it was a white-knuckled drive the entire way until the big reveal. Gienger fitted a trailer with a pallet, tarps and soil to keep Tiger King from bouncing around, and he watered it every time they stopped for gas.
The top three pumpkins typically head to the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx to go on display for Halloween. That tradition was canceled because of the pandemic, so instead Gienger gets to keep his mammoth pumpkin.
He thought about taking it to Las Vegas to celebrate, or maybe giving it to someone in California. But this year happens to be the 100th anniversary of Anoka’s Halloween celebration, so Gienger is planning to give it to his hometown so that everyone can see for themselves the Great Pumpkin of 2020.