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bears fruit

Date

John Thistleton

Six month old Josephine Trim at last year's Collector pumpkin festival.

Six month old Josephine Trim at last year's Collector pumpkin festival. Photo: Marina Neil

Exceptional numbers of tragic road accidents once threatened to stain Collector with an enduring sadness, until people in this creative farming village north of Canberra took matters into their own hands.

They created a pumpkin festival, which has put a wide smile on the face of the town and its residents.

Up until the late 1990s, Collector bushfire brigade volunteers helped police and ambulance free people trapped in mangled cars along the Hume Highway.

Back then, a new dual carriageway lulled skiers heading for the Snowy Mountains into a false sense of safety, until they struck the old single-lane highway at Collector, often with deadly consequences. In one year the bushfire brigade members attended 13 fatalities.

Long-serving brigade member and sheep farmer Gary Poile remembers asking the police if the rural volunteers could set up a driver-survivor station at Rowes Lagoon near Collector.

As well as enticing drivers to take a break from behind the wheel, the driver-reviver station became a popular fundraiser for the Breadalbane Pony Club as well as local netballers and the Goulburn Rotary Club as well as various other community groups from places such as Sutton, who made hot food and drinks for the weary drivers. The groups would raise between $800 and $1000 on weekends.

''No one ever got rich out of it but it kept the ball running, it was quite healthy for them, one of those things that worked,'' Poile says.

''At Easter at Rowes Lagoon it was quite amazing, you'd have the kids out kicking footballs, you'd have as many as 1000 people going through the station in a day.''

After the dual carriageway was completed the driver-reviver station shifted south near Lake George. Accidents declined, although small crosses and floral tributes littered the road edges, reminding passers by of the road's grim toll.

In 2002 regional food producers Robbie Howard and Joyce Wilkie tapped into Collector's strong community spirit while sowing the seeds of a pumpkin festival, which has continued to grow ever since.

The festival is on again on Sunday, with fresh produce stalls, cooking judging, singing, dancing, pipes and drums bands and scarecrow building.

They're expecting a crowd of more than 5000 people.

Robbie Howard's daughter Kate is loathe to take any credit for starting the first festival in 2003, insisting her mum and Wilkie's imagination and hard work were the drivers. But in the spring of 2002 Kate and her husband James McKay attended a barbecue breakfast hosted by Poile and his volunteers and foodies to share their vision of a pumpkin festival.

On that crisp morning inside Collector Hall where packets of seeds and growing instructions sat on a trestle table in front of guests who included regional media, Kate and James recounted a working holiday in north west Italy where a winemaker, James' brother Alex McKay, had invited them to work on a vintage.

At Barolo, a town of 600 in the Piedmont region close to Bra, home of the Slow Food movement, the Collector couple picked grapes and explored surrounding villages within 10 minutes of one another.

''What we really reflected on was all these little towns had an annual festival of some kind, often of obscure origins,'' James says. ''There was a local town which had - you know Palio in Siena, the horse race around the main square - a local town Alba had a donkey version of that, going for 800 years.

''In Barolo they had a harvest festival. There was another town nearby called Piazzo, they had a really good pub that brewed its own beer. We used to go there, we drove into the hill town and saw on all the window ledges, all these wacky gourds and pumpkins. Turns out we had arrived on the day after their pumpkin festival.''

Kate says they didn't see the festival or how they planned it or what they did.

''But we saw all these differently shaped pumpkins, they were all over the window sills, fence posts and mail boxes and shop windows. You could tell it would have been something, we thought it looked great. You could see a lot of mashed pumpkins on the cobbled street, apparently they had a big lunch in the main street.''

Charmed by the massive variety of pumpkins, they returned to Collector thinking this was just the thing for a small village in search of a fresh cause.

Raised eyebrows at the suggestion of pumpkins didn't faze them.

''In a funny way, that's the best thing because there is no agenda driving it,'' James says. ''It's a fun, easy-to-grow vegetable that people can easily get involved in, and it has so many dimensions to it.''

He had no idea of the extent of the big pumpkin craze until champion grower Joe Medway of Goulburn called him. ''Suddenly we had this legend of the pumpkin community involved.''

Medway, now better known as ''Pumpkin Joe'', was a star of the 2002 barbecue breakfast. He shrugged off suggestions the drought would kill seedlings faster than you could spit, but admitted the big 'uns drank lots of water.

Poile is Collector's current festival president. He says pumpkins have positively branded the community, which is centred on farming, boutique wineries, an olive grove and the homes of commuters to Canberra and Goulburn.

''Compared to Dalton or Gunning, Collector has a different image, more creative, a little bit trendy almost. We don't take it too seriously, it's not like we grow pumpkins for a living here. It's not like Crookwell's potato festival. They grow potatoes there, we only do it because it's fun.''

Poile is speaking on his mobile phone looking at a mob of sheep, and says even though Collector and district produces many fine sheep, he could not face the thought of a sheep festival.

''I wouldn't want to celebrate the rotten things. I'm out at the moment trying to round up a mob of bloody sheep … drive you nuts.''

A few generations of his family are buried around the cemetery. ''Having a look at them in old photographs lined up in front of their houses, there's always a pumpkin sitting on the verandah roof. They all lived off the land in those days. You didn't have a truck-load of food coming in. So pumpkins and potatoes were something that were kept.''

In the festival's early days pumpkins grew to about 60 kilograms to 70 kilograms. Now gun growers are becoming more serious. Last year Ken Ryan of Goulburn staggered everyone when he turned up with a 420-kilogram monster.

He has a formidable rival in Lerida Estate winemaker Jim Lumbers. ''He won it two years ago and Ken came back and took the ribbon off him,'' Poile says.

''We think Jim might give Ken a run for his money this year. I was out at Lerida Estate and he has some pretty good pumpkins there. I think he is quietly confident he's right up there in the hunt.

''They all keep to themselves. Different media ring me and say, 'Can we talk to the pumpkin growers?' I say 'You can try, but they are a pretty secretive lot, they don't let on much.' ''

Ryan's giant pumpkin has caused organisers to rethink putting the monsters inside the hall. ''We are going to put them in a tent outside the hall because they're getting too heavy to get inside,'' Poile says.

Lumbers began growing Atlantic giant pumpkins four years ago and says it's all about size and nothing to do with taste. ''You could make pumpkin soup out of them, but they'd taste like warm water.''

In America they grow world record pumpkins weighing around 600 kilograms. The smaller ones in Australia are still enough to create rivalry, although Lumbers plays down his chances this year.

''Ken's got the edge on me. If it all goes well for him he'll have a bigger pumpkin. He's near Marulan on a patch of basalt soil, which would be very proficient. We don't put a lot of effort in, because we are working a winery and vineyard.''

Lerida's pumpkins grow on a nutrient-rich patch of earth soaked by waste water and bathed in eastern sunlight, which is so kind to the grapes at the winery.

Lumbers says really keen growers go through a more intense regime, starting their plants off on nitrogen fertiliser for good foliage growth, then changing to a more phosphate-dominated fertiliser to get good fruit set and fruit development. He says there's a bit of an art in pruning the vines to get the optimum number of leaves per pumpkin.

Fanatics thin out the vines, but by this stage Lumbers is too busy with the grapes. His big challenge this season has been excess rain. ''It has rotted the one that I really thought was going to win.''

James McKay says he is no longer on the committee, which has changed somewhat from its early days but has kept its vision of celebrating the village while involving everyone in the town. ''Even if they are not directly involved, they know how it works and make a contribution in their own way,'' he says.

The festival has donated $10,000 for rejuvenating the local oval, which will encourage sports events.

''Collector has had its ups and downs. I think we are on the way up. We had a terrible period when Lynwood Cafe closed down, the bridge closed, the shop shut and then the pub shut. Then suddenly over the last year-and-a-half the pub has re-opened, the bridge has been re-built, the shop's re-opened, there's another wave of energy and enthusiasm.''

As well as working in the information technology field, McKay runs Lynwood Preserves with Kate. ''I remember in those early years we had committee meetings where there were 25 people in the room, which is pretty good for a town of 200. The energy and vibrancy was great to be a part of, it still really is.''

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