Ep #15 – Smoky Lake Great White North Pumpkin Weigh-off and Fair

In this episode of the Rural Opportunities podcast, Megan interviews Michelle Wright, the president of the 2022 Pumpkin Growers Association, and Caitlin Macawaechek, the vice president, about the Smoky Lake Pumpkin Fair. They discuss the history of the festival, its growth over the years, and the various activities and attractions that attendees can expect. The conversation covers topics such as the pumpkin weigh-off, community involvement, entertainment, local food and shops, and the famous pumpkin drop. Michelle and Caitlin also share information about the festival’s connection to the Great Pumpkin Commonwealth and provide insights into growing giant pumpkins. Listeners will gain a comprehensive understanding of the festival and its impact on the community.

Episode Transcription

Megan: Welcome to the Rural Opportunities podcast. I’m really excited to talk to you guys today because this year will be my first time attending the Smoky Lake Pumpkin Festival and we’re going to bid on a pumpkin. And so we’re super excited about that and I’m really excited to learn about what’s going on there. And I’ll just let you guys start off with introductions of yourself.

Speaker 2: Yeah, great. So I’m Michelle Wright, I’m the president of the 2022 Pumpkin Growers Association, and we’re the ones that kind of coordinate everything for the pumpkin fair.

Megan: Awesome.

Speaker 2: I’m Caitlin Macawaechek, and I am the vice president this year for the pumpkin growers as well. So yeah, we’ve been kind of planning everything and we have our trusty sidekick, Shiela. Here is our past president. She’s our past president. But she said she doesn’t really need to add anything unless she feels like it needs to be added. So we’ll just let her enjoy the present.

Megan: Okay. Pefect. Super excited to meet you guys. Um, so. How did Smoky Lake become the place for big pumpkins in the first place?

Speaker 2 Well, the pumpkin growing was something that, you know, typically how these things happen is somebody was probably sitting around a coffee table or a table with beverages and thought, wow, we grow some really good vegetables here. Let’s start growing big pumpkins. And they’re part of the Great Pumpkin Commonwealth, which is an American organization. So those organizations were starting to get going really strong about 40 years ago in these big contests that they were having.

Speaker 2: And our team decided that they were going to try and do it and see what it was. So the first year, I don’t think they had a lot of entries. There was one bus in the first few years that was going around and this year we have 12 busses ferrying people around. So it’s grown every year and the clubs around the community have added to it.

Speaker 2: A lot of great stuff that’s associated with what was originally just a big agriculture event with the big vegetables, including the pumpkins.

Megan: So people are coming from all over Alberta, all over Canada to showcase their pumpkins?

Speaker 2: Mostly, yeah, mostly western Canada is where they come from. So we have growers in Saskatchewan and all over Alberta. I don’t think this year we have any growers from B.C., but yeah, it’s typically the prairie provinces Saskatchewan and Alberta.

Megan: Awesome. And so what year of the festival is this?

Speaker 2: This is the 32nd year. We had two years without an official weigh off due to COVID. And during those years we still hosted a very large farmers market and our corn maze. But those were suitable or available to us during the with the COVID protocols. So this year is our 32nd annual event.

Megan: Wow, that’s amazing. That’s really cool to hear that you guys were able to keep something going during COVID.

Speaker 2: Yeah, at least a little bit.

Megan: Yeah. Even if it wasn’t a full festival. That’s awesome.

Speaker 2: Yeah.

Megan: So besides the pumpkin weigh off, what can what is what else is there that people can expect?

Speaker 2: Well, there’s a lot of fun things to do in the community. And actually, I went away to university when I was ready to go, like I grew up in Smoky Lake, and then I went away and I brought back some of my roommates my first year that I was in university and this is one comment that has just resonated with me and I have never forgotten it.

Speaker 2: And they said, when I came to Smoky Lake to the pumpkin fair. It felt like I was a part of the community and part of the family. So when you come out, you’re not just getting to, see the pumpkins and go to the car show or go to the midway. You’re actually getting to experience like a whole different level of excitement and be a part of our community.

Speaker 2: And that’s something that’s really important because everybody here is so proud and excited to show off what we have here. So a few things to touch that are other than the pumpkins is we have lots of food and a whole bunch of local fare and restaurants, beer gardens all day long. There’s a couple of different fundraisers for different community or different community groups.

Speaker 2: There’s pumpkin pie for free. There’s a whole bunch of other goodies, lots of different shops, and then also just some different stuff to do. So like the corn maze, there’s entertainment throughout town. The museum is open, we have a kids pavilion, a midway, and then of course, our famous pumpkin drop at 5:30. Awesome.

Megan: That’s sounds amazing. That is a real festival. So is there like one location where everything is happening or is it kind of all over town?

Speaker 2: So the cool thing is, is it’s actually all over town and what Michele said about the different busses that charter you around. There’s just different busses going around all day and people can kind of jump in and check out the different areas. And it’s actually pretty neat because our town is small enough that you can walk through it, but yet big enough that if you want you could jump on the bus.

Speaker 2: So it’s a lot of fun, yeah.

Megan: That’s really cool. It’s neat for an event to involve the whole town and that is just really cool to hear about.

Speaker 2: We’re super excited.

Megan: It really showcases rural communities and how do you guys find that impacts your town and like, is this bringing lots of people in and like the camaraderie in your town? How do you guys find that?

Speaker 2: Yeah, it’s pretty much we we estimate because it’s a little hard to get a handle on it that we see about 5000 visitors through in the town right now on a good day has 1000 people in it. So we we have a lot of people come in and a lot of those people, as Caitlin said, they they’re either they used to live here or they’re…

Speaker 2: They come back home to visit. They brought their friends with them. A lot of people on our social media right now are posting that they’ve never been to the pumpkin fair and this will be their first year to come to the pumpkin fair. So we’re really excited about having lots of people come that haven’t seen it before. We’ve changed a few things around.

Speaker 2: We’ve added we have a local business, the Blue Horse Gallery and Studio. She’s doing an art show and sale, which is very high end artists from around the region that are going to be at her gallery. And so that’s a bit of a new offering. She’s working with our local artist group, Studio 28, and they have done art shows in the past.

Speaker 2: So it’s good to get some of those kind of old standbys back in the list and have someone looking after them. The corn maze, as we mentioned, that’s a fundraiser for the Kinette club. They’ve done that for a couple of years now and and that’s a really good one on pumpkin fair day to go out and spend some time in the corn maze.

Speaker 2: Yeah. Yeah. And lots of food and, and really low cost for families. There’s no admission charge to the fair or to the weigh off. The only charges are there’s an admission fee for the corn maze, your food, your shopping, the midway. Those are the kind of things that, you know, it’s kind of optional if you you know, and so we’re not looking, you know, there’s no admission to actually come on to the into the town site or onto the town site.

Speaker 2: We do have this year a event guide. It’s the first time we’ve done it. Those are available when you arrive, $5 for the guide and it has everything from our emergency response procedures to key contact numbers, to the maps, to the events, to the times, the schedule of everything. And so really handy guide and a bit of a keepsake.

Speaker 2: You can take it home and then collect the 33rd one and the 34th one and the 35th one. Another thing to add when you ask like what it brings into the town, and it’s always so funny to say, but we get so busy in this town that your phones, like your cell service, goes down. So there’s so many people in the area.

Speaker 2: So like make a plan before you get there where you’re going to meet people. Because to be honest, a lot of the time you’re not going to have service to reach out or it takes like a little bit longer to get that call to finally pick up because there’s so many people in one condensed area and we’re working with, telus to try and give us a boost for that day.

Speaker 2: So hopefully it won’t be as big. And we’re also offering free Wi-Fi around town for the first time ever. So that may take some of the pressure off of the of the cell networks as well. But but, yes, definitely plan where you’re going to be when you come with your group so that you know, that sort of thing.

Speaker 2: Like if anybody gets lost, we’re going to be in front of the farmer’s market at the school or something like that at a certain time so you can find your people again.

Megan: That’s a great pro tip for the festival. So the pumpkin weigh off, people after the weigh off can bid on a pumpkin and what do what does the funds for those pumpkins go towards.

Speaker 2: Yeah, so the funds for the pumpkins, they go back into the community. This year, the executive hasn’t taken a decision yet, but typically we do a donation to the food bank with those funds that come from the auction and those are pumpkins that are donated by the growers. So once they’ve brought them to the weigh off, if they don’t want to take them home, they put them into the donation and then we auction those off at 3:30 and folks can take those home and use them as you guys are doing for your own pumpkin drop and your pumpkin smash.

Speaker 2: And we have folks that want them for displays around their gardens, things like that as well. So it’s a it’s a great way to raise some money for the community and also give people an opportunity to own one. I’m sure some people buy them for the seeds so that they can grow their own giant pumpkins.

Megan: Yes, I can imagine that. Yeah, we’re very excited for our pumpkin drop. It’s the first time we’ve done that, but we’re really looking forward to that as a community fundraiser for us as well, so…

Speaker 2: Absolutely, yeah, it is a huge draw. And the thing that people are most they ask about “is there a pumpkin drop?” “We want to see the pumpkin drop”. So the good news is this year the main park and ride area is in a larger space near the highway and we’ve moved it there because we’re fortunate enough to be in the middle of constructing a new school.

Speaker 2: And so the former parking area that we had is no longer available to us. So we move people out to this larger space and that’s actually where we’re going to host the pumpkin drop as well. So at the end of the day, as everybody makes their way back to their vehicles and then they can hang out at that location and we’ll do the pumpkin drop and then we’re then they’re ready to go home after that.

Speaker 2: So it’s going to get everybody back to their cars and see the pumpkin drop and then get on their way.

Megan: What a great idea. That’s amazing. Do you guys know what has been the heaviest pumpkin on record there?

Speaker 2: Now we do. We do. Give us a minute. We’ll look that up because it’s we’ve got the heaviest for here. And then of course, there’s heavier ones throughout the Commonwealth as well. Ours I think is 1884 lbs. Yeah. Don Cruise was the biggest pumpkin winner setting a new record for Smokey Lake site with a 1884 lb pumpkin.

Speaker 2: And he had the previous record in 2017. So this has been 20. What year was this? 29? I think it was that or 24. Last one was 2018. Sorry. So, 2018 was when Don Cruise brought the 1884 lb pumpkin. And previously he had the site record of 1652 lb pumpkin in 2017. So that weighs as much as a car.

Megan: That is a massive pumpkin.

Speaker 2: Yeah.

Megan: So I guess I should figure this out. If we’re coming to bid on a pumpkin, do they typically fit in the back of a truck or do you need a trailer?

Speaker 2: Yes. Yeah, no. Well, it depends on how big you want to buy, but these big, big ones typically don’t go for auction. The growers might take them home or do something else with them. So I think most of our auction pumpkins are in the 600 to 800 lb range. And so a pickup truck is fine and we have a forklift to load the pumpkin for you.

Megan: Okay, perfect. That is great to know.

Speaker 2: And usually, like when you get it home, four or five people can lift it out of a like it’s not horrible. Yeah.

Megan: Okay. Yeah. Well, we have a forklift on our end too, so that would be perfect. Yeah. Just wondering how big of a vehicle I need to bring with me.

Speaker 2: Yeah, and you definitely want for the drop. You’re going to want a 400 to 600 lb pumpkin to actually make it make a good show. Yeah.

Megan: So as part of like the Commonwealth, how are your connections within the Commonwealth? Like how does that work?

Speaker 2: So the growers are actually the connection for the Commonwealth and most of our growers, because we’re so far north, don’t typically take their pumpkins to the other events in the Commonwealth. But it is, it is a way to be guided by the judging rules and the and the weigh off rules in the event that our growers do want to take their pumpkins somewhere else and have them included.

Speaker 2: So I think they need to have their pumpkins weighed at three different sites to be part of the Commonwealth Prizes at the end of the year.

Megan: Hmm. That’s interesting so if somebody hears about this and is interested in trying to grow large pumpkins and how do they get started? Like, do you guys have tips for people or.

Speaker 2: Well, we do sell seeds, so we have seeds for sale for the pumpkin varieties that actually meet the requirements of a giant pumpkin. It’s a particular variety of pumpkin that you grow. And the tips you would probably have to bribe one of our growers or get the information from them because they don’t share their secrets about how they grow those big pumpkins.

Speaker 2: But maybe there’s some good stuff online about how to do that. And then the other varieties are categorized as field pumpkins, so they might be very large pumpkins as well, but they don’t fit into the giant variety category. And so they’re weighed and judged in a different category at the weigh off.

Megan: Fair enough. Yeah. I can see why growers wouldn’t want to give away their secrets.

Speaker 2: Yes, they don’t even tell us where they’re growing.

Megan: Very coveted secrets.

Speaker 2: Yes.

Megan: Yeah. And so I want to learn more a little bit about the Smoky Lake Pumpkin Growers Association. So how do people support you? How do they get involved?

Speaker 2: We are a volunteer organization and I would say that many of our members have been doing the pumpkin weigh off for almost a full 30 years, we’re seeing some younger people come in to the growers and new people come out to the growers because the only event that they do is the weigh off and the pumpkin fair.

Speaker 2: And so this has been a great opportunity for others in the community, too, like Caitlin and Sheila that are in the community and staying in the community to get involved. And it is such an amazing event that we want to make sure that it goes off without a hitch and that everybody has a great time.

Megan: Yeah, absolutely. What are each of your favorite parts of the festival? I know you guys are heavily involved with the planning and everything, but what are the type? The parts of the festival that are close to your heart. Sheila what’s your favorite part of the pumpkin fair?

Speaker 2:  Oh, I would say the market and the pumpkin drop, it’s my favorite. Yeah, mine. And like is going to sound so funny, but it’s like the aroma. Like when it’s pumpkin fair the Friday night before you just like you get this feeling like, you know, it’s pumpkin fair. I remember it as a kid, like, we just get so excited.

Speaker 2: So for me, maybe it’s a novelty like, you know, but you get there and then on the day of like even if it’s cold, they’re like, there’s a scent to the air with like all the food trucks and everything. And then you go into the complex and it’s just, I don’t know, there’s just something about the day that once you experience it, once you kind of like, crave it again.

Speaker 2: It’s just fall to me. It could be -30 we’re still out there. Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah.

Megan: The excitement and everything.

Speaker 2: That’s all it goes with. It goes rain or shine or cold or. And some years it’s been brutally cold. And other years we have wonderful weather. I think for me it’s that the community. All all these groups come together and everybody got to pick what they wanted to do and they execute it and they and we all do it together.

Speaker 2: And it just pulls this massive festival together because everybody’s working on their on their sort of only their niche product. But we all work together and then it all comes together inside. And yeah, I like the atmosphere. I like seeing people’s faces that I’ve seen in a long time. Lots of visiting, going on, lots of food, great food.

Megan: Yeah, it sounds like there’s many amazing aspects of it. Even from the planning end of it. It sounds like you guys quite enjoy it.

Speaker 2: It is, yeah. It’s been a lot of fun. Like this is our first year as this executive to to put it together. And so we’re learning a lot, but it also gives the opportunity to to listen to what we heard and all the times that we attended about what people wanted to see or what they wanted to have differently.

Speaker 2: And and we’ve been able to put those things together and people are really excited about it.

Megan: That’s really cool. So if people want to find out more about the Smoky Lake Pumpkin Festival or they want to follow you, where can they find you?

Speaker 2: Definitely on Facebook. We are @SmokeyLakePumpkinFair. If you want to find us Smokey Lake pumpkin fair, and we are actually doing a ten days to pumpkin fair giveaway and like a huge thing on Facebook right now.

Speaker 2: So we got a whole bunch of small local businesses together in the community and we made like this huge prize pack. And what we’re doing is every day we’re like featuring different things and like there’s different prompts in the Facebook post and like some are just comments, some are like different activities. You do it and then your name is entered every day, depending on what you do for the prompts.

Speaker 2: And we’re going to be doing a huge giveaway on the first with a whole bunch of like Smoky lake novelties.

Megan: Oh, cool. That is great to know. So yeah, definitely follow on Facebook.

Speaker 2: @SmokyLakePumpkinFair

Megan: Okay, perfect. That’s good to know.

Speaker 2: Yeah. So that’s the best thing they can call me at 7806565398. So call or text that number and we’re monitoring our email address every minute. [email protected]. And so any of those ways you get a hold of us and we’re being extremely responsive to people’s questions, the schedule will come out after tonight when we have our meeting, we’ll have an outline of a schedule and then the full schedule and the details will be in that event guide that you can pick up when you arrive.

Megan: Amazing. So when some if someone’s coming to Smoky Lake for the first time for the festival, where should they head to?

Speaker 2: So when they come into town, it’s likely on Highway 28 that they’ll be coming in. They’re going to turn onto the main drag off of the highway, which is right by the gas stations, go down about a block and turn at the RCMP station and the big parking area is right there. There will be a crew of our grad students that will be manning the parking lot there.

Speaker 2: They’ll give them the directions on where to park and they’ll sell them a guide. And then the busses will come around, pick them up and start taking them around town to the different locations.

Megan: Amazing.

Speaker 2: Yes, its fun!

Megan: Right after really looking forward to heading up there and just can’t wait to experience it.

Speaker 2: Yeah, great. We’re looking forward to having you.

Megan: Is there anything else that you guys want to add? I think that was all my questions.

Speaker 2: Well, we’d like to thank the town of Smoky Lake for all their work that they’ve done in putting this together. So all of our volunteer groups come together, but the staff at the town, they go above and beyond. So our public works guys, they work all week setting things up. And then during the weekend as well, all of our administration staff are working on putting the guides together, answering phone calls.

Speaker 2: They’ll be present in the weigh off to help with the judging and the recording of all of the information we need to. So we’re just really fortunate. Again, the clubs are pulling together, but everybody else pulls together as well. The county supplies us with a forklift and a driver. It’s just great to have everybody come together and contribute what they can to have a really great event for the residents and for visitors.

Megan: It’s really great to hear of a community event that brings everyone together and has everyone so involved and I’m really glad you guys were able to keep it going through covid and start out strong this year, it sounds like.

Speaker 2: So, yeah. Yeah. We’re really happy with with the way it’s come together.

Megan: Yeah, that’s really awesome. Well, that is all I have for you, so I will let you guys get back to your planning. And I wish you all the luck. And we know over here what the week before events is like. So I wish you guys all the best, and then I hope to meet you.

Speaker 2: Yeah. Great. Yeah, yeah. Make sure you text us or call us when you get here and we’ll tell you where we’re at. And we’ll be mostly around the weigh off. And we’ve got a booth farmer’s market. So yeah. So in addition to actually putting it together, we also all have different parts to do as well, pancake breakfast and corn maze and all kinds of stuff as well.

Megan: It’s amazing. Yeah. And I will send you out the recording and the published version. It should be on the 26 of the 27th. So you’ll have it a couple of days before the festival too.

Speaker 2: Excellent. Great. Thank you so much for your interest.

Megan: That’s super awesome. Okay, see you guys.

Speaker 2: Bye!