by Susan Warren 

This male dominated world became a real issue for me as I tried to blend in to the Rhode Island growers’ club that I was writing about in Backyard Giants. Over the years, the growers there had developed a kind of boys-only club, and in the view of some, my frequent visits began to crimp their style. Having a woman looking over their shoulder spoiled some of the fun, one grower complained. They had to be on their best behavior when I was on the premises.

It was a gentlemanly impulse, I suppose. I didn’t want to disillusion them with a vocabulary list of the socially unacceptable words I’ve been known to utter. Nor did I remind them that plenty of women had proven their mettle in the pumpkin patch by setting their own world records. Paula Zehr, a New York grower, was the first person in the world to grow a pumpkin weighing more than 1,000 pounds in 1996. Gerry Checkon set a world record in 1999 her first year growing in Pennsylvania, zooming past her grower husband after he lost his pumpkin mid-season to a split. (Larry Checkon got his matching world record in 2005.) And Geneva Emmons set a world record in 2001 with a 1,262-pound pumpkin in Washington.

So considering how dramatically men outnumber women in the pumpkin patch, the way I see it, women have been beating the pants off men for the last 10 years!

Yet they still have a harder time claiming their due. As I discussed this with different women growers through the year, I came to understand one reason why. It seems that in yonder days wives provided a handy way for some men growers to cheat a little. Many pumpkin weigh-offs have a one-pumpkin-per-grower rule to help level the playing field. That’s tough to stomach for growers who end the season with a couple of potential prize-winners. So a few men competitors had been known to bump up their winning chances by entering a second pumpkin
under their wife’s name. After all, she turned on the sprinkler once a week, and she brought her husband a cold-one on hot days in the patch. That counts, doesn’t it?

This tactic was supremely aggravating to competitors who saw it as cheating. And it was unfair to all the women growers who really did do the hard work of growing pumpkins and had a legitimate right to enter a pumpkin under their own name. Yet they still got looked upon with suspicion when they partnered with their husbands.

Sherry LaRue, who grows pumpkins alongside her husband, Jack, in the Northwest, solved the problem by drawing a sharp line in the garden between his-and-her pumpkins. She made sure no one could accuse her of
piggybacking on her husband by setting aside her own patch of dirt to grow her pumpkins. And just to be sure, she and Jack never compete at the same weigh-off.

In Rhode Island, Scott and Sherry Palmer of Rhode Island shared the credit by entering one pumpkin under both their names.

As the hobby grows and draws in more people, women growers are popping up more often on, the growers’ virtual community. From what I can see, women are welcomed just as warmly as men. But it helps to have a thick skin. Women growers often are teased about wearing high-heels in the pumpkin patch or ruining their manicures. And tolerance (or appreciation) of bawdy humor is a must. Give a man two smooth round orbs and there’s no limit to the number of sex jokes he can get out of it. I won’t even get in to the subject of
hand pollinating, except to say that pumpkin growers have given me new insights into why parents have such a tough time discussing the birds and the bees with their kids.