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Grandchildren inspire farmer to grow giant pumpkins

October 28, 2017

FORT GAY, W.Va. (AP) — Six-year-old Max Shilot has a lot of faith in his grandpa, faith much bigger than a pumpkin seed — for that matter, bigger than your average pumpkin. It’s the kind of faith that breaks state records.

In 2014, when Max visited the West Virginia Pumpkin Festival, he zeroed in on several prized, orange bundles of joy — the giant pumpkin display.

Though his grandfather, Robert Cyrus, had never actually grown a giant pumpkin, Max knew beyond the shadow of all doubt that he could. He was so sure of it, Max convinced a grower at the festival to send him the giant pumpkin seeds.

In February 2015, the giant gourd seeds arrived and Cyrus, never one to disappoint his family, began his research on how to grow them. He spoke to as many giant pumpkin growers as he could, and took notes of their methods.

“You find out quickly that everyone has a different opinion of how to grow them,” Cyrus said. “I thought ‘I’ll try some of them and see what works.’?”

In April 2015, he planted those first seeds and in October, the results proved Max was right. Cyrus’ 1,061-pound pumpkin took first place at the West Virginia Pumpkin Festival in Milton.

For a lot of folks, that’s where this story would end. But Robert Cyrus is a bit of a perfectionist. So he went home, pondered what worked and what didn’t, and began the process all over again. There was some unfortunate trial and error involved — more on that in a moment. But first, the good news.

Last month he not only won first place at the 2017 Pumpkin Festival, but his massive 1,407-pound entry also set a state record.

His pumpkins create a sense of wonder, but he said, “there’s no secret to growing them.” There is, however, some low-tech science involved.

Once Cyrus pots the pumpkin seeds, he is careful to protect the plants from pollination by the wrong fruit — a small pumpkin. He covers the bloom of the pumpkin with a styrofoam cup and hand pollinates them, crossing female and male blooms.

Then, “it will take off and you’re on your way.”

Cyrus babies the giant gourds. He waters, prunes and sprays them, but says he doesn’t do anything unique to help them grow fast. There’s fertilizer involved, they’re protected by a tarp on rainy days and he monitors them several times throughout the week, watching for rotten spots to develop. In the hottest months, Cyrus’ pumpkins will grow 25 pounds a day before he carefully chooses when to cut them from the vine.

Last year, he did not compete in the Pumpkin Festival because his giant pumpkin broke — it developed a crack that grew and split the gourd wide open. This can happen when the pumpkin grows too fast. This year, he cut his record-breaker from the vine in September because the vine was developing an infection. Cyrus estimates it weighed about 1,400 pounds at the time, and better than just big, it was also a bright, beautiful color. That’s not always the case.

“I would say I got lucky on the orange part,” Cyrus said. “There wasn’t anything I could have done to make it do that.”

Were it not for the infection, Cyrus said, the gourd would have grown even bigger.

Before the festival, he hauled the pumpkin to a weigh-off in Guston, Kentucky. That was no easy task — he wrapped eight straps around the gourd, joined them by a chain, and with the chain attached to a tractor bucket, he lifted and set it onto a trailer. The beauty weighed in at 1,421.5 pounds. It won third place and the “Howard Dill Award” for being the prettiest pumpkin.

By the time his pumpkin competed in the West Virginia Pumpkin Festival, it had lost weight through dehydration and was down to 1,407 pounds.

Still, it won first place, and Max was filled with pride and joy.

Jerry Stout of Weston purchased Cyrus’ pumpkin for $1,000 and now displays it at his produce stand on Route 33.

“He took it up there to let people enjoy it,” Cyrus said. “I couldn’t have thought of anything better than to see it go up there.”

Unlike most giant pumpkin growers, Cyrus’ competitive edge is not what drives him to grow a bigger and better pumpkin each year.

His grandkids, especially Max, are amazed by the “larger than life” gourds.

“The leaves were taller than them. Barefoot and walking through there, they said, ’Pap, it’s a rainforest,” Cyrus laughed. “They get a big kick out of that, which is why I do it.”

Max claimed one of the pumpkins out of the patch this year. His weighed in at 1,064 pounds and won third place at the Pumpkin Festival.

“He was tickled,” Cyrus grinned.


Information from: The Charleston Gazette-Mail, http://wvgazettemail.com.

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