Competitive pumpkin growers gather at Stillwater Harvest Fest

A person poses for a portrait
Tanner Conway, of Austin, Minn., has a passion for giant pumpkins. He has been watching this one grow since planting multiple seeds April 17, 2022. “I’ve been doing this since I was a little kid,” said Tanner. “I’ll never quit growing.”
Elizabeth Nida Obert for MPR News

Competitive pumpkin growers made a beeline for the Stillwater Harvest Fest this past weekend. The annual gathering is now one of the largest festivals of its kind in the Midwest, with the pumpkin weigh-off as its centerpiece. 

A person stand near the giant pumpkin
“This is pretty ridiculous,” says Chris Garbisch, right, of friend and neighbor Tanner Conway, as they transport Conway’s giant pumpkin Friday.
Elizabeth Nida Obert for MPR News

Other pumpkin-related events included a pumpkin drop from a crane and a post-competition regatta sailing the pumpkins down the river. 

Among those who competed this year was Tanner Conway, 28, of Austin, Minn. He made the two-hour trek to the Stillwater Harvest Fest, but said, even with the aid of a forklift and lifting ring, getting the huge fruit there wasn’t easy. 

Conway said other drivers can get really distracted as they pass him transporting his pumpkin on the road. The reactions, he admitted, was one of his favorite things about growing giant pumpkins.

“I’ve seen people literally like just paying no attention to the road and like grabbing their phone or, you name it, trying to snap photos of the pumpkin on the trailer,” Conway said. “It’s almost like you feel kind of guilty because you’re like, ‘whoever is driving, have your wife or, whoever else is in the car take photos, please. We don’t want an accident.”

Giant pumpkin transferred to Stillwater
“The plan is to do our Christmas card inside the pumpkin, all wearing Santa hats,” says Tanner Conway. He departed Stillwater, Minn. and headed home to Austin with his giant pumpkin following his second place finish at the Stillwater Harvest Fest on Saturday.
Elizabeth Nida Obert for MPR News

Despite the stress, money and time that goes into growing and transporting a massive gourd, Conway loves it. He said it’s something he always wanted to do as a child, and sees the joy his pumpkins bring to others. He remembers the reaction he got from one young fan, a little boy, to the giant gourd he grew in 2018. 

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A person poses near the giant pumpkin
Tanner Conway soaks in the moment after the weight of his giant pumpkin is revealed at the Stillwater Harvest Fest on Saturday.
Elizabeth Nida Obert for MPR News

“And he kind of looks like a younger version of me,” he said. “It was kind of cute because he’s like, ‘Man this has to be the biggest pumpkin’ and he was freaking out. He said, ‘It must weigh 2,000 pounds!’ and I looked at him and I said, ‘No, it’s only 1,300.’ And he looked right at his mom and goes, ‘Mom, it’s over 1,000 pounds!’”

Conway estimated his entry this year clocked in around 1,700 pounds, but he didn’t know how much his pumpkin actually weighed until he got to the competition. There, he was shocked to hear that the giant gourd exceeded his expectations at almost 2,000 pounds.

For his countless hours of no sleep, time and effort, Conway won second place. The fun, he said, will continue after the competition as he headed home back to Austin, as he had plans for the gourd.

“Once we get it home, me and my wife are going to do our Christmas card with it,” he said. “So, we’re going to cut it open. We’re going to have me, her, and her golden doodle, we’re all going to have our little Santa hats on and we’re gonna pose in the photo with it.”