The Sippels sell decorative pumpkins and sunflowers at a roadside stand next to their house near St. Cloud, Wisconsin. 
PHOTO BY STACEY SMART
The Sippels sell decorative pumpkins and sunflowers at a roadside stand next to their house near St. Cloud, Wisconsin. PHOTO BY STACEY SMART

    ST. CLOUD, Wis. – For Derek Sippel, bigger is better when it comes to pumpkins. This giant pumpkin grower does not concern himself with color or shape – size is what he values most. Growing the monster pumpkin is what this dairy farmer sets out to do every spring.



    “Six years ago, I got a seed from a friend who grows giant pumpkins,” Sippel said. “I planted it, and once I saw how fast it grew, I was hooked.”
    The giants average 1,500 pounds and are big enough to cover a pallet. The biggest pumpkin Sippel ever grew weighed over a ton at 2,047 pounds. Sippel is a member of the Wisconsin Giant Pumpkin Growers organization and participates in weigh-offs during September and October. At these competitions, pumpkins are weighed to see whose is the biggest. Winners receive prize money, but that is not why Sippel continues to grow the pumpkins.
    “It’s more for bragging rights and just having fun,” he said.
    Sippel also takes his giant pumpkins on tour, traveling to schools and businesses. He and his wife, Nicole, shared the pumpkins with students at the school their 3-year-old daughter, Mae, attends.   
    “The pumpkins only last a little while, so we show them off while we can,” Sippel said. “When I see the little kids’ faces light up, I know it was worth the drive.”
    Sippel is a fifth-generation dairy farmer who farms with his parents, Earl and Yvonne, near St. Cloud. The Sippels milk just over 100 cows at Airy Point Dairy and run 1,000 acres. In his spare time, Sippel can be found working in his pumpkin patch down the road at his home known as Airy Point Farms. Sippel usually produces two big pumpkins each year.
    “It’s a lot of work,” he said. “I start with a lot of seeds and then whittle down to the ones I want. I planted six giants this year and then narrowed down to two I wanted to focus on.”
    The following year, Sippel will plant the seeds from his largest pumpkin. Seeds for this enormous fruit come from all over the world, but Sippel prefers to source his seeds from local growers.
    “There’s a big network of people who supply seeds, but I like to plant seeds grown in Wisconsin,” he said. “Pumpkins that do well in our state give me the best chance for growing the big one.”
    Seeds are planted at the beginning of April, and Sippel starts them in the house in 2-gallon pots. If weather cooperates, plants are transferred outside in early May into small greenhouse structures.
    Pumpkins are pollinated in late June, and growth occurs within a 90-day window. These massive pumpkins grow at an astoundingly fast rate, literally expanding right before a person’s eyes. In their prime, the giants can grow up to 40 pounds a day.
    “It’s fun to watch how fast they grow,” Sippel said. “It’s intriguing. When I look at them before chores in the morning and then look again at night, I can tell the pumpkin grew during the day. It’s amazing it can grow so fast.”
    Sippel fertilizes the pumpkins once a week and does pruning. June and July are his busiest months when pumpkins demand the most hands-on care.
    “Each pumpkin drinks about 50 gallons of water per day, so you have to water them a lot,” said Sippel, who puts sand underneath the pumpkins to ensure proper drainage.
    In the summer, Sippel covers his giant pumpkins with a bed sheet to protect them from the sun, and on chilly fall days and nights, the sheet serves as protection from frost. The pumpkins are stored inside on cold evenings.
    The first of his two giants this year weighed in at 1,525 pounds and took second place out of 20 pumpkins at Cedarburg Creek Farms Sept. 19, earning Sippel $100 in prize money. The other pumpkin is still growing in the garden and currently weighs 1,600 pounds. On Oct. 17, it will hit the scale at the Mishicot Pumpkin Fest.
    Weigh-offs take place in Wisconsin every weekend from mid-September through mid-October. Each pumpkin can only be weighed in one time. Therefore, the number of weigh-offs Sippel attends depends on the number of pumpkins he has.
    “A lot can go wrong when growing a pumpkin this big,” Sippel said. “A pumpkin with a soft spot  one inch deep is disqualified.”
    Growing a bright orange giant is a bonus. Often times, the big ones are pale orange to light tan or nearly white in color.
    “Sometimes I get lucky and get a big orange one, like I did this year,” Sippel said.
    Moving pumpkins of this magnitude requires large equipment. A tractor with a special sling is used to lift up the pumpkin and set it on a pallet.
    Sippel also grows smaller decorative pumpkins on a 2-acre plot in a variety of colors. His passion for pumpkins is not a family tradition passed down from previous generations. Rather, it is a love of his own creation. Sippel’s younger brother, Cole, has also started growing giant pumpkins.
    As a side business, Sippel and his wife sell the smaller pumpkins at a roadside stand on their property along with sunflowers grown by Nicole. They also sell pumpkins to campgrounds and a garden greenhouse store. Nicole, a veterinarian nurse, began growing wildflowers this year to sell at farmers markets and other venues. Her bouquet subscriptions – which included weekly or biweekly deliveries – were much more popular than she expected. Nicole has five weddings booked to supply flowers for in 2021.
    “My flowers are perfect for people who like the wildflower look and something a little less formal,” said Nicole, who also caters to flower shops. “I have a unique selection of fresh flowers – the kind that cannot typically be shipped.”
    Intrigued by regenerative agriculture, Sippel said he and his dad do a lot of no till and cover cropping, and he plans to implement no-till practices in the flower garden as well.
    “We try to be good stewards of the land,” he said.
    Smitten with pumpkins, Sippel looks forward to every growing season and the challenge and excitement of growing the giants.
    “I just really like pumpkins,” he said. “And growing the big ones is fun to do.”