Giant pumpkin weigh-off kickstarts annual Morton festival
With his orange, high-top vintage Converse sneakers and pumpkin-themed stockings, Mark Mourlas is easily identifiable as a pumpkin enthusiast. An expert in all facets of pumpkin growing, varieties and breeding, Mourlas is often called on to preside over pumpkin breeding competitions at locations throughout the upper Midwest.
On Tuesday, Sept. 13, the Mokena native was on hand for the “giant” pumpkin (Cucurbita maxima) weigh-in competition kicking off the 56th annual Morton Pumpkin Festival. In between weigh-ins, Mourlas-- who is the reigning giant pumpkin king of Illinois after producing a 1,893 pound behemoth in 2021-- took time to discuss his passion for the big, orange gourds and his role as an official record-keeper for sanctioned pumpkin contests and competitions in the Midwest.
“Our job is to make sure that a pumpkin is sound and appropriate for entering into a contest,” said Mourlas, who officiates events in the Great Lakes Region for the Great Pumpkin Commonwealth (GPC), an international organization that governs pumpkin competitions. “If a pumpkin were to be a world record pumpkin, we would support that and work with the Guinness Book of World Records to get that posted.”
Cook family nearly sweeps Morton honors
While none of the pumpkins submitted by local and area growers on Tuesday threatened to break any weight or size records, some notable Cucurbitas were submitted. Driven into town in the back of four wheel drive pickups trucks and removed via forklift, chains and harness, giant pumpkins submitted for the Morton contest ranged in weight from 535.5 pounds to 993.5 pounds, the former belonging to Reid Cook of Morton and the latter to his father, Jeremy Cook, who took top honors at the event.
In fact, the Cook family nearly swept top honors at the Morton pumpkin competition, with an 813 pound giant grown by Alexis Cook, Reid’s sister and Jeremy’s daughter, placing second overall and first in the youth division. Joe House, a Princeville grower who took last year’s Pumpkin Festival weigh-in crown with an entry of 757 pounds, also finished in the top four this year with a 677-pounder.
Jeremy Cook, who is not a farmer but owns some rural property near Morton, said he decided to “start fooling around” with growing giant pumpkins around five years ago, and soon decided to involve his children in the laborious growing process, which requires a lot of land, time, labor and water.
“The last two years we’ve gotten a little more serious,” Cook said. “This year I grew some seeds purchased from (breeder) Mark Clements of Michigan. His 450 Clements seed and some added genetics came from parents of 1,800 and 1,700 pound pumpkins.”
In addition to the open class giant pumpkin category, Morton school children are encouraged each year to participate in categories including queen pumpkin (half-size of king), tiniest pumpkin and mature pumpkin weighing closest to 56 pounds (in honor of the 56th year of the Pumpkin Festival). Winners included youth giant pumpkin entrants Alexis and Reid Cook, along with third-place entrant Brody Tindell; Davis Countryman with tiniest pumpkin, and Gibson Countryman with an entry of 56.5 pounds to claim the “56 Award.”
Growers competitive, yet generous
All of the pumpkins submitted for the Morton contest passed Mourlas’ official inspection process, which begins with confirming that an entry presents with at least 75 percent orange coloring. “Anything less falls into a squash category, and there are separate official rules for squash,” he said. “Generally, with giant pumpkins we are looking for the heaviest entries. But there can also be a category for ‘prettiest’ pumpkin. There is an award called the Howard Dill Award; he was a person who in the 1970s up in Nova Scotia that really worked on the genetics to get giant pumpkins going. We acknowledge him at many competitions with an award for the prettiest orange pumpkin.”
Acquiring high quality giant pumpkin seed can be difficult for a beginner, according to Mourlas, who recommends potential growers align themselves with their local or regional giant pumpkin growers’ network to obtain seed from members, who are usually happy to oblige a novice.
“Genetics of large pumpkins are highly sought-after. There are auctions in the off-season, and sometimes seeds have gone for as much as $1,000 dollars apiece for the big ones,” he said. “You can look for those auctions on www.bigpumpkins.com, or you can also go to some of these weigh-offs and meet growers who will just give you seeds. We’re very happy to help spread the sport. You might not get the world record pumpkin, but you can still get some pretty good seeds.”
Giant pumpkin weigh-offs are taken very seriously by the top-tier breeders and growers who travel throughout the U.S. to compete in high-stakes competitions, Mourlas added. “A weigh-off last year in California paid $23,000 to the grower of the state record pumpkin. At some of these bigger competitions you may have thousands of people showing up.”
Growing by the numbers
It takes up to 900-to-1,000 square feet of land to grow a single giant pumpkin plant, along with a steady supply of water or irrigation. Currently, there are around 23 competitive giant pumpkin growers in the state of Illinois.
According to Mourlas, the Illinois record for heaviest pumpkin is held by Gene McCullen of Streator, at 2,145 pounds. His 2145 McCullen seed is considered the best ever bred in the state. A new world record for the stoutest gourd was established in 2021 by an Italian grower who cultivated a 2,700 pound giant pumpkin, Mourlas added.
Illinois will hold its annual state giant pumpkin weigh-off on September 24 at Heap’s Giant Pumpkin Farm in Minooka, giving Mourlas an opportunity to defend his 2021 state championship. To learn more about the GPC, visit www.gpc1.org.