For Napa’s Leonardo Ureña, this will be an October to remember.
On Oct. 1, he won at Elk Grove’s Giant Pumpkin festival with a California record-breaking entry of 1,684 pounds.
On Oct. 10, he set another state record — 1,704 pounds — at the prestigious Half Moon Bay giant pumpkin contest.
Ureña, who immigrated to the U.S. from Jalisco, Mexico when he was 17 to work in Napa vineyards, was suddenly a star.
“The reporters went nuts” at Half Moon Bay, his boss, Lee Hudson, said Tuesday. “It was like Jennifer Lopez walked into the room.”
“It’s incredible excellence on his part,” Hudson said of his farm supervisor, who has been striving for pumpkin glory for 11 years.
For his victories at two of the nation’s major giant pumpkin contests — and his back-to-back California records — Ureña earned “Farmer of the Year” honors from the Giant Pumpkin Commonwealth. He and his wife Gloria — and his Half Moon Bay pumpkin — will travel to New York City later this month for festivities there.
Ureña’s base of operation is the Hudson Ranch in Carneros where he farms vegetables on two-and-a-half acres that supply a lineup of notable restaurants, markets and families in the Napa area.
With Hudson’s encouragement, Ureña planted this year’s giants on loamy soil in a corner of the vegetable patch. When his work day growing non-gargantuan vegetables was done, he tended to his big- boy pumpkins.
What did he do differently this year? He ripped the soil before planting to a depth of two feet. That was different, but the soil amendments were ones he’d used before, he said.
As Ureña explained it, giant pumpkins require as much care as prodigy child violinists, at least a couple of hours daily. Blossoms are hand-fertilized, leaders have to be buried daily, beds of sand are constructed, then tents built to protect from harsh heat.
Sometimes you can give a pumpkin too much attention. One of his 2011 contenders for greatness reached 1,360 pounds in just 60 growing days, then split.
“It was growing too fast,” Ureña said. “I was doing a little too much fertilizer.”
No giant pumpkin grower has ever had a year like the one Ureña is having. His three entries at Elk Grove, Half Moon Bay and a third contest in Morgan Hill tallied almost 5,000 pounds.
His prize money, not counting the all-expenses trip for two to New York, is nearly $22,000. Most of this he will put into a college fund for his three children, he said.
Remarkably, Ureña’s pumpkin patch isn’t empty. There’s still one more giant slumbering in a corner of his garden.
“It’s a big pancake, huh?” Ureña said, pulling back the tenting over a sprawling mass of orange vegetable pulp.
This fellow weighs more than 1,300 pounds, but unless it gets entered in a contest no one will know how much more, Ureña said. Five or six years ago, it could have won best-in-the state. Today, with everyone grower bigger and bigger specimens, it’s an also-ran.
He’d like to enter it in a Salinas weigh-off this weekend, but has a prior commitment: He will lead the parade at the Half Moon Bay festival with his 1,704-pounder.
This is the second largest pumpkin grown in the world this year, Ureña said. It will be displayed at the Brooklyn Botanical Garden, then he will harvest the seeds which are treasured by growers for their superior genetics.
Unfortunately, big pumpkins are uncertain seed producers, Ureña said. He might harvest six seeds or 600.
Because giant pumpkin growers constitute a worldwide fraternity, Ureña said he will give his seeds away, shipping some as far away as Japan and Europe.
Ureña said he never could have imagined such acclaim when he began trimming grape vines for Hudson 26 years ago. Giant pumpkins offered him a way to shine.
When he placed second at Half Moon Bay in 2005, he remembers vowing to do “whatever it takes to win.”
“I didn’t talk loud about it, but that was my goal — winning at Half Moon Bay,” he said.
“It’s ‘mission accomplished.’”