Big enough for ya?

There’s a really large pumpkin at the N.C. Mountain State Fair this year. It’s not your average pie-making or Halloween-carving job for the yard. It’s a 600-plus pound vegetable that had to be carefully raised from its growing patch in Fletcher with a special lifting ring, then loaded onto a wooden pallet and gently set down in its showing spot in the newly added Virginia C. Boone Mountain Heritage Center and the Livestock Exhibition Building.

It’s not the biggest pumpkin that’s ever been brought to the Mountain State Fair, but at 736 pounds, it’s still one of the largest ever seen in WNC. Longtime fair exhibitor Susie Zuerner grew it and won first place.

Zuerner has been a faithful fair exhibitor since 1998, when she entered a few of her mother’s pampered roses. She had some mild success, won a few ribbons and found a new obsession. Her wall of fame includes about 600 first-, second- and third- place ribbons won over the past 12 years.

Zuerner keeps her N.C. Mountain Stair Fair catalogue from every year and writes down total ribbons and money she’s won. In 2001, she won 42 ribbons (amount unknown). The next year came in at 59 ribbons and $375. Last year, in 2009, she racked up 54 ribbons and $821. But expenses ran about $300, so she’s not at the exhibit hall looking to make big bucks.

“Everyone has their bragging rights,” Zuerner says about the friendly competition and relationships she’s developed with fellow fair exhibitors. “We only see each other one time a year, but we have a blast.

“I usually just go through my garden and see what’s out there. I’ll grab what I think looks good and enter it just to see if it will win,” Zuerner says sitting at her kitchen table, overlooking her just-under-an-acre lot in south Asheville where she grows all of her flowers, fruit trees and vegetables. “I even grew some things I don’t like — such as peppers — just so I could have them to enter into the fair. I knew I could give them away to my neighbors.” 

Entering a giant pumpkin is something she’s considered for the past few years. She’d tried flowers, fruits and vegetable entries to cooking entries and she was ready for a new challenge. Zuerner’s had a fascination with large pumpkins since she was a teenager, when she grew pumpkins that weighed around 100 pounds. She gave those away to neighborhood kids.

But since becoming a Mountain State Fair regular exhibitor, Zuerner began paying attention to giant pumpkins submitted by Wallace Simmons, then a “4-H guy from Haywood County. He started bringing in 800-pound pumpkins and that just sparked something in me.”

Over the years, Simmons shared some seeds from his winning pumpkins with Zuerner, and she gave it a try. She finally had some success last year with a 222-pound entry that placed. The seed was planted in her head to try and grow WNC’s biggest pumpkin.

Zuerner did some Internet research and came across a very dedicated group of giant pumpkin growers who all communicate through a particular website. There, they share growing tips, support and seeds from their winning pumpkins. Zuerner reached out to every first-place giant pumpkin winner in the United States last year and asked for a seed. She sent money to cover the costs and every single grower sent her at least one seed. It may not have come from their winning pumpkin, but it came from as large a vegetable they could spare. Zuerner even received a seed from a woman who holds the world record for largest pumpkin, at 1,725 pounds.

Zuerner doesn’t think she’ll grow pumpkins next year. She’ll be ready for another challenge. But it has crossed her mind that “maybe, just maybe, someone will catch the passion” as she did a few years ago. “I think it would be really cool if another seed were planted to get someone interested in growing something like this,” Zuerner says, “just like it happened to me.”

— Tracy D. Hyorth is a freelance writer and owner of outnaboutasheville. She can be reached at outnaboutwnc@gmail.com

what: N.C. Mountain State Fair
where: WNC Agricultural Center, Fletcher
when: Wednesday, Sept. 15 through Sunday, Sept. 20. (Wednesday – Thursday: 3 p.m. – 11 p.m., Friday & Saturday: 9 a.m. – 12 Midnight, Sunday: 9 a.m. – 11 p.m. $7 Adult, $3 Children 6 – 12 years of age, $3 Senior 65 years and older. More info: 828-687-1414 or www.mountainfair.org/mountain-state-fair/general-information.html)
when: Saturday, Sept. 11 and Sunday, Sept. 12 ($50/$70/$100/$125. Day passes and camping available. ralak.com)

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