CARROLLWOOD — Perched high atop a throne of hay, 969 pounds of gigantic gourd gleam under the Florida sun.
In the weeks leading up to Halloween, hoards of autumn lovers are expected to make the pilgrimage here to admire “Florida’s largest pumpkin.” At least, that’s the title the social media person at Bearss Groves gave it.
There isn’t actually an official ranking of hulking fall produce in our state. But that’s not really the point of Bearss Groves’ annual tradition anyway. For the farm stand at 14316 Lake Magdalene Blvd., the mission is simple: To track down a massive orange orb that captures the hearts of Instagrammers and passersby. To craft a display that inspires parents to wrangle their children and pets into autumnal attire and come visit. To secure a prize pumpkin hefty enough to outweigh the fact that Florida, even during spooky season, can still feel like a sweaty armpit.
“It was about making a display at first, before it became the obsession of the big pumpkin,” said Barry Lawrance, owner of Bearss Groves and seeker of the squash.
Barry Lawrance, now 42, has been working at the local business since he was a teenager. The Lutz resident and his wife, Courtney, purchased the century-old farm from the Bearss family in 2006. Throughout the year, the family tends to the Bearss Groves produce market, plus 8 acres of farmland across the street and 40 more acres of farm in Lutz.
The pumpkin patch tradition started soon after they bought the property. They loved how colorful the store felt during the fall harvest and decided to add in some gourds. Then in 2007, Barry found a particularly plump one to be the center of their display.
“When I got that first big pumpkin, we put it where people could actually try to touch it,” he said. “By the end of the season, it was completely gouged with people’s fingernails, because people [didn’t] believe it was real.”
Over the years, the pumpkins have gotten bigger. So has the fanfare, said Courtney Lawrance, 37. TV crews flock to their patch for the grand reveal each fall and families scramble for their turn to snap holiday photos. The Lawrances have done the same many times with their own children, now 6 and 4.
“I have pictures of them every year since they were born in front of the pumpkin,” Courtney Lawrance said.
Barry Lawrance has his system down. He knows how to slow the effects of Florida’s humidity to preserve his prize pumpkins (rotting holes are sprayed with sulfur, like World War II doctors used “to stuff wounds with.”) Every year after Halloween he has a plan for disposing the remnants. If the pumpkin is intact, his chickens use it as a playground; If it is already rotting mush, his cows feast.
The search begins with rounds of phone calls to growers in early September. Over the years, Barry Lawrance has been through at least eight different pumpkin growers. There are few folks who do this kind of work, painstakingly raising a fat hybrid variety of “prizewinners.”
“They’re very labor intensive,” he said. “You literally baby these things for months. They build shelters over them. They pad them in Styrofoam as they’re growing.”
Then Barry Lawrance travels out of state to peep at potential pumpkins. Lots of giant gourds grow pale or lumpy as they start to fill out. He wants one that’s as much a beauty as it is a behemoth.
In the past five or so years, his already herculean quest has become even more difficult.
Maybe it’s bad weather, or people wanting to keep the seeds they have to grow more prizewinners. Either way, the stock is down. And since more people want colossal pumpkins, the prices have shot to record highs.
This has not deterred Barry Lawrance. In 2020, he reached a new peak with a pumpkin from Michigan — a gorgeous gourd, which weighed in at 989 pounds.
The following year was less extravagant. Due to crop failure, the Lawrances were not able to secure any pumpkins larger than a paltry 150 pounds.
This year, Barry Lawrance was ready to bounce back. He sent his friends to a produce auction on his behalf. He did not set a limit for them to stop bidding.
“A smart human being would probably do that, but I’m dumb,’” he said. “I’m like, ‘I don’t care. I want that pumpkin.’”
He asked the Tampa Bay Times to refrain from disclosing how much he paid (Let’s just say it could buy a lot of pumpkin spice lattes). He wants people to know the funds came out of his own pocket, not from Bearss Groves.
“You can’t put a price on the memories and life experiences that these things bring in,” he said.
After the auction, at least three adults worked together to slide the foam-swaddled pumpkin into the back of a semi-truck. To fill the Bearss Groves patch, the rest of the 53-foot trailer was packed with much smaller pumpkins.
”They’re all friends,” Barry Lawrance said.
The family waited anxiously for the truck back in Florida.
“We really don’t know what exactly it’s gonna look like,” Courtney Lawrance said. “We know the weight and sometimes we get a picture, but oftentimes the color of it is a surprise to us.”
Barry Lawrance, a self-described perfectionist, admitted he was a bit disappointed when his most recent purchase was unloaded.
Perhaps his expectations were too high. The 2020 gourd was “one of the top ones we’ve ever gotten.”
“This year’s is around the same size,” he said. “But it’s squished down so you don’t have that nice big circular shape of a pumpkin.”
“He’s kind of lumpy,” said Bearss Groves’ store manager Savannah Grooms. “He’s a cool old grandpa pumpkin to me. He’d have on suspenders and aviator glasses if he was a person.”
“It has more of a vibrant orange color to it and in past years our pumpkins can sometimes be a more pale orange, or even yellow,” Courtney Lawrance said. “So I really liked this year for the color.”
The Lawrances agreed the pumpkin had a handsome stem. So what if he was a little squat? They tenderly arranged it next to a skeleton in a floppy hat and waited for the crowd to roll in.
“The public doesn’t know the difference or care,” Barry Lawrance said. “They’re just like, ‘I can’t believe the pumpkin grew that big.’”
See the giant pumpkin
Bearss Groves is open from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday. The pumpkin patch is free to visit, and the giant pumpkin should be on display until Halloween or so. bearssgroves.com.