Sea-girt and windswept, Öland Island sits off the southeast coast of Sweden in the Baltic Sea. The sun lights the night and the water warms the land into autumn. The wind blows away insects. It is a good place for growing things—like giant pumpkins.
The island is known as a vacation spot. White sand beaches, ancient castles, Viking rune stones, and the ruins of old windmills beckon tourists. There are bicycle and birding trails. Visitors walk in the footsteps of the famous Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus, who hiked through the limestone steppes of Stora Alvaret, a World Heritage site where 32 varieties of orchids grow.
But for more than 6,000 years, this narrow strip known as "the island of wind and sun" has also beckoned farmers—men like Stefan Gossling, a native of Germany, who heard the call, and in heeding it realized a dream of a healthier way to live. He found the working organic farm for sale on the internet, and as he recalls, "I saw the pictures and fell in love. I wanted my daughter to have a calm place to live." And like so many others who are finding their way back to the land and taking up farming, Gossling is a self-proclaimed idealist who believes in organics.
The 80-acre tract that stirred Gossling's heart is named Solberga Gård—a.k.a. Sunny Hill Farm. First farmed in the early 1600s, it has been buffeted by fire and hard times. But the land has endured.
Today, the farm is visited by as many as 40,000 people a year—about 7,000 of whom come the last weekend of September for an annual harvest festival that features the Swedish Pumpkin Championships.
Pamplona may have the running of the bulls and Boston its marathon, but Solberga Gård has pumpkins. Extremely large pumpkins.
Not that Sweden has the best climate in the world for raising giant pumpkins. That distinction belongs to the United States, where many of the world-class mammoths hail from the northern regions around New England, and the Great Lakes. And southern Canada also weighs in. The world record is 1,810.5 pounds, set in Wisconsin in 2010. There are hundreds of pumpkin varieties, and about 40 of them are grown at Solberga Gård. But a prize-winning specimen starts with the right kind of seed, and there are specialists who supply giant vegetable strains for everything from parsnips to pumpkins. Gossling singles out 'Dill's Atlantic Giant', which is known as the granddaddy of classic behemoths, as one of the best varieties.