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Homegrown Talent

If you took your camera to the N.C. State Fair, odds are you stopped for a photo op near the giant pumpkins in the Exposition Center, one of the most popular family attractions.

Wallace Simmons, Wayne County 4-H agent, supports the display in a big way. He and his family raised four of the five giant pumpkins, and he helped the grower of the largest specimen, a 522-pound whopper, providing tips and transportation to the fair.

Wayne County 4-H agent Wallace Simmons with a 280.5-pound pumpkin, this year's runner-up.

Simmons grew the state’s heaviest pumpkin six years running, and the family won state pumpkin weigh-offs in North Carolina and Tennessee the same year. He worked his way up to an 860-pound pumpkin before moving from the mountains of Haywood County—where cooler night temperatures make for a better pumpkin-growing climate—to Goldsboro in 2008 for his current job.

Although he’s hooked on the challenge of gargantuan gourds, Simmons sees raising pumpkins as a good way to give young people skills that last a lifetime.

“In 4-H we teach the values it takes to succeed in life,” he said last week, in between entering 4-H members’ turkeys and helping position produce. “You have to put a lot of hard work and effort into it, show dedication every day.”

His sons and daughter, all teens, take charge when their dad’s away for summer 4-H events, and they’ve learned the secret of growing giant pumpkins: There are no shortcuts.

It’s a break-even enterprise at best for Simmons. But that’s not what motivates him.

“I do it because it’s the state fair, and it’s a place to talk about 4-H,” he said. He knows hundreds of people will see his horticultural handiwork, adjacent to the State Fair Ark and milking booths.

What’s next? A foray into supersized watermelons is a possibility. This year’s 282-pound winner set a state record.

Dr. Tom Monaco with bishop's cap peppers, back-to-back blue ribbon winners at the state fair.

Fair Dare

It took a dare to get Dr. Tom Monaco to enter the state fair. The longtime NC State horticulture science department head and semiretired administrator obviously had the knowledge. He’d been gardening since he was a kid, but he’d never taken his produce to the fair.

Two years ago, Monaco was strolling through the vegetable exhibits in the Exposition Center, when he mused out loud to a friend, “I’ve got stuff in my garden this good.”

“Bring it on,” replied the friend, who happened to be the superintendent for the horticulture competition at the fair.

Starting in 2010, Monaco did, carting in 34 entries that earned 22 ribbons. All were from the family garden on an eighth of an acre at his son’s house in Apex.

Monaco, who works one to two days a week coordinating commodity relations and a regional fruit consortium for the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, spends plenty of  time in the family garden.

On Thursday mornings during the growing season, he works in the garden with his brothers-in-law, Jimmy and Ed Smithwick, both retired. His brother, Joe, brought him seeds from relatives in Italy for bishop’s cap peppers that have won back-to-back blue ribbons. On weekends, Monaco works with his son, Michael, and grandson, Anthony, who had his first winning fair entry this year, much to his grandfather’s delight. Another son, Joe, and his children, Spencer and Margaret, also help with the garden on weekends and during the summer.

All told, the Monaco family did itself proud, racking up 31 ribbons from 57 entries, and making a major contribution to the colorful, homegrown spectacle in the Expo.