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Big vegetables? Stop the presses!

Contrary to what you might believe, Midwesterners are not the quiet, modest, unassuming types everyone makes them out to be.

They are a shameless, boastful, competitive group especially when it comes to the size of their vegetables, fruits, flora, fungi, fish and other miscellaneous natural objects.

About this time of year at newspaper offices around the region, these people come swaggering in, holding aloft gargantuan-sized items they have plucked from Mother Earth and insisting the paper run a photograph of them and their large natural objects to preserve their conquests for all posterity.

I personally took photographs of people with large mushrooms, large flowers, large watermelons, large squash and large dead fish during my reporting career. For any of my old journalism professors who happen to be reading this, consider that last statement a confession of my journalistic sins.

Despite most reporters, photographers and editors agreeing that  running these photos is of questionable news value, no one has ever been able to turn them down. The most intensive newsroom discussions I’ve heard deal not with debates over naming the victim of a sexual assault or using an unidentified source. They’ve dealt with coming up with a policy on taking large-object photos.

“Let’s ban all large-object photos,” one radical newsroom member would suggest in the meeting.

“We can’t do that,” another member would say. “What if someone has a world-record-sized zucchini? If we decide not to take any large-object photos, this zucchini grower will go to the paper up the road and we’ll get scooped on a huge story.”

While this discussion continues, slowly drawing to no conclusion, the newsroom is completely oblivious to gun play on the street outside or the large, established business burning to the ground a few doors down.

So people continue to come into newspapers with their large objects and newspapers continue to take their photos.

“Ever seen anything quite this big?” large-object holders say to a reporter as they come into the newspaper.

“That is quite large,” the veteran Midwest reporter says, avoiding a direct answer.

But the reporter really wants to say, “I’ve seen hundreds of things that big. I’ve seen heads of cauliflower as big as basketballs, ears of corn as big as Arnold Schwarzenegger’s thighs and a pumpkin so heavy it herniated the guy who was bringing it in, but he still managed to smile for the photo.”

But the reporter keeps quiet, takes their photo, gets their name and the weight and/or dimensions of their large object.

Running photographs of large produce usually gets the newspaper into trouble, because no matter how big one person’s produce is, there is always someone else out there — generally easily irritable people — with larger produce. As tensions build and as gardeners bring progressively larger produce into the paper, it can escalate into a full-blown war.

“Saw you had a 17-pound cucumber in the paper last week,” says a combatant in the gardening war. “I don’t know where you people get your information, but 17 pounds is by no means big for a cucumber. Don’t you people check your facts?”

Right, we want to tell him, next time we’ll call the produce-size information clearinghouse before we publish anything.

“Anyway,” the gardener-warrior continues, “my smallest cukes are 17 pounds. What you need to take a picture of is this.”

He reaches into his coat, sending some produce-war jittery news staffers diving to the floor thinking the conflict has finally escalated into bloodshed. A gun, however, would have been preferable to the large cucumber he actually pulls out.

“Nineteen pounds,” he says proudly.

Other times they are more insistent.

At a paper I worked for, a guy came into the office in the midst of a heated mushroom-size war, carrying a fungus the size of a small dog. He looked at a group of us, looked at his mushroom and said one word: “Well?”

I fear nothing can be done to stop this trend toward large-object newspaper photos. Soon, all Midwestern newspapers will be equipped with grocery-store produce scales and tape measures to get accurate readings on the size of their large objects.

And newspaper reporters and photographers each year will be eagerly awaiting fall, hoping the first hard freeze comes early.

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