Punkin’ group in search of Sussex Co. farm for 2015

Staff Writer

The annual World Championship Punkin’ Chunkin’ has been cancelled for this year — “postponed,” officially, until Nov. 6 through 8, 2015, when it is scheduled to be held at Dover International Speedway, which was to have been the site this year.
Organizers are hoping, however, to find a farmer or neighboring farmers willing to allow the use of farmland in Sussex County, since there isn’t enough room at the speedway to shoot a mile while spectators are there.
Punkin’ Chunkin’ started nearly 30 years ago in a backyard in Lewes, Del. There were just a few machines then, tossing pumpkins that hadn’t made it as jack o’lanterns at Halloween. After a couple of years, the chunkers formed an association and took over the festival itself. As the distance pumpkins could be hurled increased, the event was moved in 1998 to William and Betty Hurdle’s field in Harbeson, Del., which offered a full mile of range.
Rita O’Neill, vendor coordinator and head of the field planning committee, has been with the Punkin’ Chunkin’ Association since 1997. She is still amazed at how much the event has grown.
More than 20,000 people attended the 2013 event, which was held at Wheatley Farms, just outside Bridgeville, Del., as it had been since 2007. Farm owner Dale Wheatley informed organizers this year that he could not welcome them back after being involved in a lawsuit filed by a volunteer who was injured in an ATV accident during the 2011 Punkin’ Chunkin’.
“In 29 years there’s only been one major incident, one individual,
“O'Neill said. The case is waiting for settlement, which she expects will be soon.
“All the legal and related fees will be paid for by the organization,” she said.
O’Neill has been in the amusement business all her life. She travels all over doing events, “so it’s not foreign to understand the risks that go on,” she said. “The insurance company understands, too. We carry event insurance that will pay everything, with no liability to the farm. If anything should occur, we pay all the expenses, lawyers, everything.
“If there’s damage to the farm itself, we would take care of it. We set everything up and tear it down, leaving the farm as close to what it was when we got there as we possibly can.”
O’Neill contacted the Delaware Farm Bureau and was encouraged by Executive Director Pam Bakerian to put out a plea to try to find a farmer or two farmers with adjacent fields where they could hold the event.
Any farmer who is willing to consider having Punkin’ Chunkin’ come to his or her farm is asked to call O’Neill at 443-497-6722.
There is a suitable spot in Maryland, on the Eastern Shore, which “would be okay if we have to (go there),” O’Neill continued. “But we really want to keep it in Sussex County,” O’Neill said. “It was born and raised in Sussex County and we want it to stay here.”
The Delaware State Fairgrounds in Harrington was considered, but there isn't enough length. “We need a mile straight up,” O’Neill explained. Some of the smaller machines shoot 4,300 feet. Even the “big guns” are not allowed to use any sort of fuel, just compressed air.
“We handle everything,” O’Neill said. “Organizations have been doing various tasks for years for a donation. Parking and clean-up have been done by the young ladies of the Delaware Diamonds Fastpitch Softball Organization. All the work is done by volunteers; no one gets paid.”
Punkin’ Chunkin’ is usually held the first weekend in November. The fields then are in transition from corn to winter wheat, O’Neill said, so there’s usually not a problem with crops.
Perimeter fencing is usually set up on weekends preceding the event. The organization is willing to buy the crop on the needed acreage if necessary, and could pay rent for the field. Traditionally, the “rent” has been a donation to the farmer's favorite charity.
Alcohol was a factor in the 2011 accident, O’Neill said. “We do not sell alcohol. Spectators have been allowed to bring it in. We are looking at more suitable ways to allow consumers to partake in a more responsible way while at the event.”
O’Neill expressed appreciation for everyone who has worked so hard to make Punkin’ Chunkin’ a success.
“It was so devastating that we had to cancel this year. There are only 110 slots, and groups have worked and worked and finally got a spot and then weren’t able to come. Some high school classes work all year on their machines. It’s an awesome learning experience, and a nice family festival.”