Even at the end of October, Patrick White is still nurturing the tomato crop his Alaska state record-breaking fruit was plucked from. Gargantuan red and green bodies cling to hefty, leafy stems, staked in rows inside the largest of the three high tunnels that take up half of White’s backyard.
The recent Idaho-turned-central Kenai Peninsula resident added two pounds to the previous state record when he and his grandchildren hauled four fat tomatoes, all hovering around the 4.5-pound mark, to the Alaska State Fair Crops Department’s 2nd Entry competition in August.
“I was amazed with it, I was excited by it,” said Crop Superintendent Kathy Liska. “I knew beforehand he was bringing it because he called me. He said he knew he had the new state record … many of the growers are pretty good at knowing what they have.”
Even more noteworthy is the fact that is was White’s first year growing giant vegetables.
“It was stunning to see it, because it was huge — it was big,” Liska said. “It’s nice to have a new grower, you know, a lot of the giants there … it’s the same group of growers and it’s a hobby of theirs. It’s what they do, and here came Patrick out of left field, so he drew quite a bit of attention.”
The Alaska State Fair is an official weighing site for the Great Pumpkin Commonwealth, an international organization that sets standards for “quality of fruit, fairness of competition, recognition of achievement, fellowship and education for all participating growers,” according to the GPC’s bylaws. While White’s whopper didn’t come close to the 8.4-pound GPC and World Record set by Dan MacCoy of Minnesota in 2014, it far surpassed the 2.4-pound Alaska state record set in 2004 by Debbie Richards and her husband Sid.
“We’re happy to see that someone else is able to do something like that,” Sid Richards said.
While Debbie took the winning heirloom tomato to the fair, Sid said he was the grower behind the beast. His wife set the record that year for biggest green pepper. He said hot horse manure might have been what ballooned the single 2-pound tomato 10 years ago, the only one they have ever entered in the fair that grew to that size.
Sid Richards said the couple’s emphasis is now on nutrition, so growing giants isn’t really what they aim for anymore.
White said his big tomatoes are not for eating — they have no flavor.
“They are not the best tomatoes I have ever had,” White said.
Even average-size tomatoes propagated in Alaska have about 40 percent of the taste of their hot-climate counterparts, White said. For tomatoes, the taste is in the seed cavity, so having a lot of meat doesn’t mean more of the same, he said.
However, the cooler temperatures are what have poised the state to continue to produce very large, red fruit that may rival even the existing record-holders, White said. It takes heat to ripen tomatoes, so if it is colder, they will stay on the vine longer, he said.
He put his plants in the ground in early June. Next year, he said, he will start even earlier, because even a little supplemental heat in his high tunnel has kept them growing well into autumn, which he said would be normal “if we were in Idaho or Seattle.”
A retired engineer, White had the time and knowhow needed to develop an effective regimen for growing the titan tomatoes. He attributes an alignment of many factors as the key to successfully cultivating large vegetables.
He began at the ground level. White’s home, which he moved into two years ago, was built on an old gravel pit. He coated the undesirable ground with topsoil and compost and balanced the soil’s pH with nutrients like magnesium, sulphates, potash and boron, among others, and fertilizer, which he said, is “basically the flavor of it.” Producers also must have the right seed, soil, fertilizer program, amount of water, a support system for the heavy buds and the right temperatures, he said.
White’s son Stephen White said he and his father have been gardening and growing tomatoes since he was a kid, so it was only natural he get involved in this project year. Stephen White also enlisting his three children, Ethan, 10, McKenzie, 8, and Caleb, 6.
Stephen White said his father researched practices and viable seeds beforehand. White said he settled on a breed called Big Zac tomatoes, a kind of heirloom tomato and one of three varieties most giant growers go after. Each of his three grandchildren took care of their own plant, and both adults had a few to look after, so they ended up at White’s almost every night, he said.
Stephen White said it is the international “golden age of giant tomatoes.” If the Whites had entered this year’s winner 10 years ago, it would have most likely set the world record, but recently growers have been able to add pound after pound on almost an annual basis, he said.
“It feels like holding a cantaloupe,” Stephen White said with a laugh. “It’s kind of hard to believe they get that size. Yeah, it’s wild.”
Liska, who has been the Crop Superintendent of the fair for 10 years, said for many of the state’s giant producers, it’s a full-time summer job, and many are inspired to keep pushing the limits.
“It’s definitely a challenge because you don’t know what you are going to come out with in the end, it is just hopes for these records,” Liska said. “I think it’s just a challenge. It’s fun, it’s addicting, once somebody has grown a giant they are just after it all the time.”
Beyond the thrill, Liska said the annual weigh-ins are proof Alaskan farmers can master food production. At one point, she said, Alaska had the largest vegetable records in the world. The state’s contest upholds and encourages very high standards in its participants, she said.
Stephen White said the family has even bigger plans for next year.
“We had a lot of success this year,” Stephen White said. “We started a little late and are looking to beat our record next year. We are pretty optimistic.”
White said he is cloning the plants that grew the big ones this year to use in the next round.
Over the winter, White said he has plans to grow the world’s biggest in-house tomato, and next year wants to go after the state record for biggest bushel gourd and white radish.
“So why are we doing this? Just for the fun,” White said. “It’s more fun than politics, right? I mean, it’s tomatoes.”
Reach Kelly Sullivan at firstname.lastname@example.org.