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How One Man Is Shaping the Global Food Supply

02/24/2015 08:07 am ET | Updated Apr 26, 2015

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This post is an excerpt from GET BIG THINGS DONE: THE POWER OF CONNECTIONAL INTELLIGENCE by Erica Dhawan and Saj-nicole Joni.

So who cares about giant pumpkins? Maybe a few thousand people who grow them competitively in places like Palmer, Alaska; Half Moon Bay, California; and East Hamlet, Indiana. We were definitely in the pumpkin-agnostic category before we heard the story of Ron Wallace, the first man to grow a one-ton pumpkin. But it turns out that what you learn from growing a massive pumpkin can help solve hunger and starvation around the world.

Growing super-sized pumpkins may sound like an unusual hobby, but it's surprisingly popular. There are giant pumpkin clubs. There is a giant pumpkin web site that gets more daily visitors than some national news sites. There are annual giant pumpkin competitions, with ribbons and cash awards. And then there is obsession. Consider: Farming began around 10,000 BC. It took until the year 2000 for a farmer to grow the first thousand-pound pumpkin. Ron Wallace hoped to double that weight a mere decade later.

In the ultra-niche world of pumpkin farming, growing a one-ton pumpkin has long been considered a kind of loony dream. The average pumpkin weighs between ten and twenty pounds, and the growing season lasts anywhere between seventy-five and one hundred days. It turns out that way back in 1959, when Charles Schulz first began drawing the iconic Charlie Brown comic strips about an elusive hero called the Great Pumpkin, he knew something that most people don't: pumpkins are temperamental. And needy. They hate cold weather, have to be watered constantly and do best in enriched soil where their vines can twist and snake out into nearby areas. They're ill-equipped to handle frosts, root damage, or insect infestations. Half of all pumpkins die before reaching maturity.

Yet Ron Wallace, a full-time country club manager and second-generation pumpkin enthusiast (his dad grew big pumpkins too), managed to beat all the odds and do the seemingly impossible. How? Connectional intelligence.

Almost ten years before his giant pumpkin landed him in the Guinness Book of World Records, Ron became obsessed with a book called How to Grow World-Class Giant Pumpkins. He soon joined a statewide pumpkin association and, around the same time, stumbled upon the website Bigpumpkins.com. Online and off, he started exchanging pumpkin trivia, war stories, strategies and best practices with other growers. He reached out to potato and tomato farmers, curious whether they had any insights that might aid him in his quest. He badgered well-known scientists for agricultural advice and information. He shipped his pumpkin plants off to experts for testing. And along the way, he stumbled across something called mycorrhizal fungi--naturally occurring underground spores that attach to the plants root system and bring water and nutrients back to the plant--which he added to his arsenal.

At this point, Ron was devoting up to forty hours a week reading books, writing articles and researching the best way to bring his colossus to life. (There are shades of Malcolm Gladwell's 10,000 hours theory here and in many connectional intelligence stories.) But it was not all about the hours. Some of his best discoveries happened by accident. For example, forgetting to add nutrients in his soil in early April, he rushed to add them in late May, which likely contributed to the massive growth spurt of his giant pumpkin. In his search for information, Ron learned that potato farmers use a technique called bio fumigation, in which the soil is leavened with manure to help protect against pests and disease. When Ron tried it, he found that the resulting high mustard content in the soil created sturdier crops. Armed with what he now knew, Ron mixed and matched techniques taken from familiar and faraway disciplines and industries. A little of this, a little of that. The result was a pumpkin that he dubbed The Freak II. It was a sprawling, un-beautiful thing, more yellow than orange, but it became the world's first one-ton pumpkin at the 2012 Topsfield, Massachusetts agricultural fair and, with that, Ron Wallace made history.

We're the first to admit that stories and videos like the tale of the one- ton pumpkin show up almost daily in our inboxes and in our Facebook and Twitter news feeds. So, besides the fact that Ron Wallace is the kind of underdog champ who makes us all feel like we can dream the impossible dream, why does a giant pumpkin matter?

It matters because Ron's story is an almost textbook illustration of connectional intelligence. It began as a solo act. Then Ron joined forces with groups--local growers, national growers, scientists and soil experts. Diversity played a natural role in Ron's research process. He wasn't sure that potato and tomato farmers had anything to teach him, but technology made it easy for him to get as many different kinds of brains on his project as possible, at virtually no cost. Because of this, Ron combined ideas and disciplines in ways that no one in his field ever had done before. There was also an element of courage: Ron pestered the smartest scientists he could find with his questions. Many wouldn't give him the time of day, but the ones who did take a moment to answer an e-mail and offer advice represented an intellectual resource to which, fifty years ago, a guy like Ron would have never had access. Moreover, almost everyone who contributed intellectual brainpower to the growth of Freak II did so for free. They weren't paid. They weren't courted by the glory of the project or the celebrity of the one who pursued them. They offered up their connectional intelligence because they were inspired by Ron's curiosity, his commitment and his passion.

The story would all be enormously instructive even if it ended there, but it doesn't. Seven thousand miles away from Ron's hometown of Greene, R.I., scientists and farmers took note of the many media reports about the Freak II. In India, where more than half of all workers are employed in agriculture, officials have begun experimenting with Ron's techniques, with the goal of producing more and bigger crops in less time and with less chemicals. Big industrial agriculture is taking notice too. In other words, a monster fruit grown by a hobbyist Rhode Island pumpkin farmer is, right at this very moment, influencing the future of large-scale agriculture, food production and potentially the global food supply. Connectional intelligence doesn't get much better than that.

Ron Wallace's connectional intelligence inspired him to ask unprecedented questions. Inclusive connectivity gave him the ability to ask those questions to literally anyone in the world, creating a list of resources that would have been unimaginable a generation ago.

From Get Big Things Done by Erica Dhawan and Saj-nicole Joni. Copyright © 2015 by the authors and reprinted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan, a division of St. Martin's Press, LLC.