lake water to grow green beans? An insight into the world of competitive vegetable farming

The Minnesota State Fair makes a competition out of oversizing everything. The biggest boar. The biggest sugar beet. The longest yellow slide.

But few carnival attractions inspire more wonder and curiosity than the monster vegetable.

The gigantic pumpkins, the sinemiest runner beans and the chubbyest potatoes confuse the minds of trade fair visitors with a frequent question: How did they get so big?

“There’s something so magical about it,” said Chris Brown, a master grower of pumpkins, gourds and hubcap-sized sunflower heads from Nowthen. “You take that little, tiny seed, let Mother Nature do her part, and you do your part.”

But aside from seed, black earth, water and sunshine, what exactly does “your portion” mean?

Freaky theories and superstitious hypotheses abound throughout the horticultural building. Was the topsoil revitalized with radioactive waste? Were these doused with gallons of Miracle-Gro? Did you plant the turnips at midnight when the moon was full?

Roseville’s Lori Anderson said she used lake water to feed her green bean — though she admitted returning to the drawing board after “shrinking” a 24-inch entry came, well, short.

Her spud found fair fame for more traditional reasons.

“Sandy, well-drained soil has allowed me to grow the largest potato,” Anderson said.

Katherine Anschutz, Hanover, used her young daughter’s hands to plant beet and buttercup squash seeds for good luck. She also tried a lunar plan.

“We plant all of our seeds in the three days after the new moon,” said Anschutz, whose gourd took fourth place.

Green thumb tips run deep — and are often downright odd. Rogue gardeners have sworn to prep tomato plants by spraying the soil with Jell-0 Powder. Others leave beer cans outside at night to catch snails.

Everything would be fine under state fair rules, says Phil Klint, superintendent of the vegetable and potato section. The plant must be grown within the boundaries of Minnesota. They also mustn’t crack or rot, which can disqualify some of the state’s most impressive products.

A passerby stared at the state’s largest onion on the opening day of the fair. She was perplexed.

“That’s the biggest onion?” asked the girl and ate an ice cream. “I have the feeling that we buy larger quantities in the store.”

Klint has worked in the produce department for more than three decades and took over the reins from his father a dozen years ago. Spending his career on produce, he said many contestants sling a secret sauce. He’s heard of pumpkin growers who bake their pumpkins with manure or sunscreen to prevent cracking.

“It’s basically a beauty pageant when you do the exhibition,” Klint summed up.

But a beauty pageant without a cash prize.

“They’re good for one thing,” Klint added, “bragging rights.”

Last Thursday, hours after it opened, onlookers lined up in the Horticultural Wing to see the specimens. The Awesome snapped selfies with the pumpkins in focus. Early risers shuffled down the aisle pointing at carrot fat like D batteries.

In the past, competitive vegetable growing was kept secret, Brown says. But social media opened up the community.

Brown held the Guinness World Record for a 55-pound butternut squash from 2020-2021. He tells mythologies – like feeding your pumpkin milkoriginated as sabotage among rivals.

“Put milk on your pumpkin [and] They’re going to have bugs and critters eating it for nothing,” he said.

Brown, last year’s champion pumpkin grower, has decided not to enter this year’s competition as he is in the middle of a move. Instead, he will be speaking at the fair about growing giant pumpkins. His tricks include developing seed lines without pollinator intervention and testing the pH range of the soil.

A multi-category winner this year, Hutchinson’s Joan Dixon, said she and her 78-year-old mother – Jacquelyn – have been growing giant vegetables together for the past five years.

This year, she took home the ribbon for the largest cabbage and turnip greens and the longest green bean — which are over 35 inches long.

“We had a pepper that didn’t win,” Joan said. The Dixons also came up short with a 39-pound pumpkin. The winner weighed in at 79 pounds. “I don’t think I could lift that much.”

While the fair’s annual vegetable derby is competitive, there are many growers willing to share their knowledge. A few years ago, Joan Dixon was told to buy her seeds from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds in Missouri.

“They have a 500-page color catalog of the weirdest vegetables you’ve ever seen,” she said.

The mother-daughter duo doesn’t plant by moonlight. They also don’t play music on the radio to scare away deer. But they breed their winners in Hutchinson Town Garden.

“The good news is they have water for us,” Dixon said. “But we can’t make rain barrels.”

That also means no sea water.

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