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Meet the Michael Jordan of Minnesota State Fair Veggie Competitors

"I would never, ever say that because I am a Minnesotan and I'm modest as heck," Terri Doerr says of our unprompted G.O.A.T. comparison. "That's the kiss of death when showing vegetables—when you get too cocky."

Terri Doerr posing with her 91-inch banana squash at the 2013 Minnesota State Fair.
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Jordan. LeBron. Doerr?

Yesterday, a Racket reader messaged us about Terri Doerr’s “absolute DOMINATION” in the Minnesota State Fair’s vegetable contests. They wondered: What is her champion-caliber garden like? Does she inspire fear among her rivals?

Over the past 15 years, in the heated world of State Fair vegetable competitions, the name Doerr has indeed carried superstar significance. The veggie-growing great from Harris, Minnesota, has racked up eight Sweepstakes—the aggregate category that tallies the most yearly points via ribbons—through the past 10 fairs. With help from her husband Bob, she’s gunning for a ninth this year. That’s rarefied air, considering the title has only been bestowed around 150 times in fair history.

Doerr is quick to acknowledge that she’s standing on the shoulders of gardening giants. For decades, the Olsons and the Beecher-Smiths were the elite names in State Fair veggie showing. The Kareems and Wilts of their era, if you will.

“Realistically, the Beecher-Smiths told us: ‘You need to step up to the plate so we can retire,” Doerr remembers. “We’re like, ‘OK, I guess we’re stepping into it big-time.'”

When Doerr was a rookie, she entered a more “cut-throat” veggie-showing world. Things have since gotten much more supportive inside the Agriculture-Horticulture Building. “We’re friendly with everybody—you bring your best, we’ll bring our best,” says the sales-account manager/sport gardener.

“Some of these old folks, they played for keeps,” Doerr says with a chuckle. “There were a couple of these older ladies who just had to keep away from each other. Like, ‘Oh my God, don’t let ’em near each other,’ because one would be known to allegedly put a fingernail mark in the other’s tomato.”

Decades ago, Doerr asked her farmer neighbor, Ol’ Pete, to till a small garden patch next to her 140-year-old farmhouse. As the ribbons started mounting, more and more soil on her eight-acre property was devoted to harvesting peppers, pumpkins, summer squash, carrots, beans, tomatoes, and a whole lot more. The secret to making her acre-sized garden productive? “Feed ’em and weed ’em,” Bob says, to his wife’s agreement. “You’ve got to have a big garden to compete against us,” Doerr adds.

That simple strategy is paying off. The thrill of scoring a fifth- or forth-place ribbon satisfied Doerr at those first competitions. “You got a ribbon at the State Fair, which is pretty frickin’ cool when you think about it,” she says. Ten years ago, Doerr threw down the gauntlet, in the cheery Minnesotan sense, and vowed to compete at the highest level possible. She started grinding at county fairs, learned the ideal way to trim leeks, and, generally, forged a champion mindset. (In the cheeriest, Minnesotan sense.)

“We started putting in more categories, and just upped our game,” Doerr says, noting that cosmetic primping accounts for around 50% of what delivers winners. “We’ve sure tried to live up to the quality of those before us.”

During her current dynastic run, Doerr will enter around 20 veggies per day at the fair. She has built a comfortable Sweepstakes lead at this year’s Get-Together, having scored 25 blue ribbons at press time. The honorary rosettes and inscribed silver platter? They’re in sight. (Doerr has scoured the record books, but was unable to identify an all-time Sweepstakes champ.) “Things are looking good for this year. We’ve got some competition this year, which is good,” she says, again stressing how eager she is to share knowledge and support with her fellow growers.

Expect Tom Brady-level longevity from Terri and Bob. They plan to get involved with judging when their showing days end, though that won’t come anytime soon.

“It all depends on how much the body will allow us to do,” Terri says.

“As long as we can still get vertical everyday,” Bob adds.

“I think we’re just very lucky, and we’ve done very well. I would never, ever say that because I am a Minnesotan and I’m modest as heck,” Doerr says of Racket’s unprompted G.O.A.T. comparison. “That’s the kiss of death when showing vegetables—when you get too cocky.”