Round the corner when arriving at the Sippel farm and you might hear a rooster crowing in the distance or see a cat cross your path. This is rural life in Fond du Lac County. This is also where you will find fifth generation dairy farmer Derek Sippel and the multi-generational farm with about 100 cows and 1,000 acres. There’s not much leisure time when it comes to farming but in his spare time Derek likes to grow giant pumpkins, tomatoes, watermelon, and squash.
It starts with the proper seeds and they can come from all over the world. The first week in April the seeds are started indoors. When the weather warms up, the plants go outside and into the protection of a small plastic greenhouse. Sometimes that greenhouse will require a space heater to protect the plant from a late spring frost.
The goal is to grow a massive root system. The more roots you have, the more water you’ll have pushing through to the pumpkin and that adds weight. Derek said, “If you do that, you’re going to have the best chance to grow a really big fruit.”
Thirty days later and the pumpkin is now the size of a giant beach ball and growing 30-40 pounds a day during its prime growth spurt. The pumpkins are covered with a bed sheet to keep them from scorching in the hot summer sun. Derek said, “They start growing so fast they actually will split, then you’re disqualified from competition.”
The end of July is considered the half-way point in the growing season. Derek will tell you success is measured by weight, not color or shape. It’s all about pounds. Using an app he can take three measurements: circumference, side to side, and front to back. Derek relays those measurements to his wife Nicole who enters them into her phone and lets the calculator do the rest. In the first 40 days this pumpkin weighs in at 642 pounds.
Forty days later it’s harvest time. Family and friends have gathered as a big lift is brought in to retrieve the pumpkin from the patch. There are a few tense moments as the pumpkin is strapped in and Derek gives the signal to give it a lift. On hands and knees Derek inspects the bottom of the pumpkin for any rotting or holes. One or the other and this pumpkin could be disqualified. After a smile and a thumbs up, this pumpkin is good to go. Family and friends let out a cheer.
It’s Saturday morning, September 16th and the pumpkin is ready for the trip to Cedarburg where Derek will see how his summer of work compares to Wisconsin’s other giant pumpkin growers.
In 2016 when Derek had his 2,047 pound pumpkin, he was more than a bit nervous. This year, not so much. Derek admits, “It is not about winning. It is not about the prize money that you can get. It’s for bragging rights.” The pumpkins will be weighed smallest to largest based on their estimated weight.
The Wisconsin Giant Pumpkin Growers contest announcer asks Derek about winning last year. Derek says that win validated all his hard work in the pumpkin patch, “Yea, I think my dad thought I was probably crazy and a lot of other families members. They were kind of like, ‘What is this guy doing? He’s spending so much time at this.’ But last year when I had that one weigh over 2,000 pounds, I think they were kind of like, ‘Whoa, that’s pretty cool.’”
This year Derek’s pumpkin tips the scale at 1,450 pounds. “It’s the second biggest one I’ve grown not quite as big as last year. I guess it’s not always about having the biggest fruit. It’s just about enjoying what you are doing, enjoying being outside and being in the garden. And there’s always next year, that’s the thing. I’m already excited about growing next year.”