Port Alberni resident Jake van Kooten is retiring the heavy-weight champion of the world—of pumpkin growers, that is.
The good-natured van Kooten grew his last four giant Atlantic pumpkins this year, his last hurrah. Van Kooten is selling his Kitsuksis Road property and settling into retirement.
“I’m going to call it a career. I’ve been to the top and not many can claim that,” van Kooten said. “I’ve got nothing left to prove.
Van Kooten grew a 1,500 pound pumpkin that was named the biggest pumpkin in the world in 2008. “I was world champ for one year at least,” he said.
“The weights are unattainable for me now though so that’s it.”
Three of his last four giant pumpkins are being displayed in Port Alberni, Nanaimo and Campbell River. The fourth one died before fully growing, he said.
The one locally is being displayed in the pub at the Kingsway Hotel.
Born in Holland in 1942, van Kooten came to Canada in 1952 with his parents, five sisters and four brothers.
The family first lived in Alberta before moving to Port Alberni in 1957.
He remembers his Halloweens as new and fun, he said. “I was a bit of a Lone Ranger though because I went trick-or-treating alone and never with a crowd.”
He started growing pumpkins in 1971, “Just to grow jack-o’-lanterns for my kids,” he said. He started by growing one plant then over the years added more. “I don’t know how many I’ve grown altogether, let’s just say a whole bunch,” he said.
Van Kooten told his wife that he wanted to grow a 100-pound pumpkin one day. Eventually, he grew several 300-pounders.
With his pumpkin horizons ever expanding he became curious about the giant Atlantic pumpkins and contacted the inventor of the Atlantic Giant in Nova Scotia to inquire about it.
He also joined the Pacific Northwest Giant Pumpkin Growers club to learn more about growing the behemoth pumpkins and grew his first one in 1989. He’s grown four per year since, he said.
Van Kooten has a four-point plan for growing big pumpkins. One, they need good genetics. Next, they have to be grown in fertile soil. As well, the weather needs to be good between May and October when it grows.
“And you need good luck too,” he said.
Van Kooten may be retiring from pumpkin growing but he won’t be inactive, he said.
“I’m still going to garden and I’ve taken up lawn bowling. I’m going to do a bit of travelling too.
“It’s time for a different life now.”
Locally, Naesgaard’s farm has had a good growing season, Chris Naesgaard said. “We usually plant a couple of thousand [pumpkins] and harvest several hundred,” he said.
The Mary Street farm market grows small medium and large pumpkins that are used for different purposes, he said.
The pumpkins are popular for fundraising. Naesgaard’s provides schools and various organizations the opportunity to go harvest pumpkins for a fee. “We donate the proceeds to BC Children’s Hospital,” Naesgaard said.
A bonus on Halloween is that Naesgaard sees himself when he was a kid. “I always remember watching fireworks on Halloween night at the Lakeshore store,” he said. “I see kids come in with that same sense of excitement over the years.”
Across town at Collins Farm and Arrowvale Campground, Bob and Ann Collins are also getting ready for Halloween. Their theme this year is scarecrows. Last year’s theme was Alice in Wonderland.
The couple run a haunted hayride through ‘Creepy Hollow’ which they’ve set up on their farm. The event is considered ‘soft’ with no wickedly scary exhibits. The first rides were held last weekend and attracted more than 190 participants, and another will be held Halloween week, Ann Collins said.
“We used to only offer it on one weekend but it got popular so we offer it over two now,” she said.
Collins got the idea for a haunted hayride after visiting several farms in other communities which had them, she said.
The Collins grew 1,500 pumpkins this year but only sold 300. “We had a real problem with deer this year. They ate them as soon as they started growing.”