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Minnesota home to rising star in competitive pumpkin-growing world

Travis Gienger said the pumpkin he’s growing this year could weigh more than the one he grew in 2020, which was the heaviest pumpkin in North America that year.

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Travis Gienger and a 1,000-pound pumpkin he grew this year at the Minnesota State Fair on Aug. 30, 2022.
Noah Fish / Agweek
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ST. PAUL, Minn. — Competitive pumpkin grower is just one of the titles for Travis Gienger.

Hailing from the Halloween capital of the world — Anoka, Minnesota — Gienger has been growing giant pumpkins for 28 years, after starting in his "regular suburban" backyard as a kid.

"When I was 14, I grew a 447-pound pumpkin and have been doing it ever since," said Gienger on the morning of Aug. 30.

Two years ago he grew the heaviest pumpkin weighed in North America that year.

"And I'm still back at it this year," he said referring to the gourd he has growing now, to enter into competition this fall.

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Many traits

Another title for Gienger is educator. He started his career teaching high school students and currently is a landscape and horticulture instructor at Anoka Technical College.

He’s also a business owner, founder and president of Waterstone Fire Tables and Custom Rock Creations , which filled the space of an Adopt-A-Garden at the Minnesota State Fair this year outside the sheep and poultry barn, where Gienger could be spotted for most hours of each day by a giant pumpkin.

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A structure designed by Travis Gienger, owner of Waterstone Fire Tables & Custom Rock Creations, which filled an Adopt-A-Garden space this year at the Minnesota State Fair.
Noah Fish / Agweek

He ranks in the most elite class of competitive pumpkin growers in the world, with his apex mountain as a grower coming at 2020’s Safeway World Championship Pumpkin Weigh-Off in Half Moon, California, for his 2,350-pound pumpkin that took home first prize.

He hit media darling status after his pumpkin — named Tiger King after the hit Netflix series at the time — was named heaviest pumpkin weighed in North America that year and third heaviest in the world.

Gienger and Tiger King (the pumpkin) appeared on the The Drew Barrymore Show, and months after his first prize win, Jeff Lowe, a top role in the Tiger King cast, reached out to him to say thanks for the publicity.

The trip

There are competitions for pumpkins in every state, said Gienger, but the only level he’s interested in participating in is the best.

"You can go to Stillwater, here in Minnesota, or you can go out west like me, for the big one, in California," he said.

That makes transportation of the pumpkin a tremendous feat in itself. The trip to northern California, which he makes with his wife and other family members, is a 2,500-mile journey. With a 2,350-pound pumpkin.

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"It's very scary," he said of the cross country driving stretch, where gas stations are sparse at times. "Then San Francisco's roads — when we got all the way out there, where it was like bump, bump, bump. And if you get a pinhole and or a crack, you're done."

The grow

"It takes a lot," said Gienger of his pumpkin growing process.

A pumpkin he grew this year which weighs around 1,000 pounds was displayed by Waterstone’s exhibit, and on a weekday morning it attracted a stream of astonished fairgoers who stopped to admire and take pictures.

But that pumpkin was a throwaway for Gienger, who said it spurred from weeds unexpectedly. Its main vine cracked when he left it unattended for two days in a row. There's no secret to maintaining a perfect, giant pumpkin, said Gienger. Just constant monitoring and attention for its entire growing process.

"Every morning and evening, I spray and fertilize," he said. "And all throughout the day, I log in through my phone to water 14 times a day, fertilize 14 times a day if I want.”

That’s throughout the 200-something hours he put in at the state fair this year and for the last 12 years. Despite seeing so much pumpkin in his life, he hadn't thought about bringing one with him to the state fair until a couple years ago.

"People just go nuts," he said of the displayed pumpkin. "I could enter it (in a state fair competition) just down the road and get a few hundred bucks for it, but it's worth more to just have it sit in my booth.”

The inspection process at top pumpkin-growing competitions are intense, said Gienger, and judges probe pumpkins from every angle. The pumpkin he had the state fair would have been eliminated for its crack.

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"If there's one rotten spot, it's disqualified," he said.

Like professional athletes risking use of performance enhancing drugs to get an edge on the field, cheating at pumpkin-growing will surely be caught.

"One guy way back in the day put water in his pumpkin, and it was just astronomically heavy," said Gienger. "So that's why you can't have a pinhole, or anything. They inspect them pretty good, especially if you're anywhere near the world record.”

Minnesota grown

An impressive detail of his elite status as a pumpkin grower is that he's doing it in Minnesota.

"The craziest part about what I do is it's all outside, in Minnesota, which should not happen ever," he said. "We go from 96 degrees to 52."

Maverick

This year, Gienger has a promising gourd growing into its final stages before October competition time. Sticking with the theme of current popular entertainment, the pumpkin’s name is Maverick.

He said he can't commit to an event until he knows what the condition of his pumpkin will be in a couple weeks. He’s heard that organizers behind a Stillwater competition are working to collect a world record payout (he took home $16,450 in prize money in 2020, receiving $7 per pound in a "pay-by-the-pound" system), but all he can say now is “we’ll see.”

"I've got about two more weeks, and we'll be setting really pretty. It's really, really big right now. Bigger than my other one,” he said.

He's optimistic about his pumpkin, but isn't ready to start spreading the news that he's got another winner.

"I mean, it's still growing," he said.

At 41, Gienger said he’s enjoyed the fun that’s come with his success, but that he’s ready to walk away from competitive pumpkin growing soon.

"I said I was done growing after this year," he said. "But my wife doesn't want me to be."

If he bagged another top prize two years after his last one, his retirement would shock the pumpkin-growing world like Michael Jordan did to the NBA in 1993.

Noah Fish is a multimedia journalist who creates print, online and TV content for Agweek. He's also the host of the Agweek Podcast.

While covering agriculture he's earned awards for his localized reporting on the 2018 trade war, and breaking news coverage of a fifth-generation dairy farm that was forced to sell its herd when a barn roof collapsed in the winter of 2019. His reporting focuses on the intersection of agriculture, food and culture.

He reports out of Rochester, Minnesota, and can be reached at nfish@agweek.com
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