By Jenny Neyman
It’s hard to say what’s most impressive about Patrick White’s record-setting giant tomato at the Alaska State Fair this year — that it crushed (diced, stewed, pulverized) the previous record, that this was his first year growing giant tomatoes, that this was his first year growing anything in Alaska, or that the biggest specimens of his crop this year went on to far outweigh his own new state record.
Look out, world, here comes Soldotna.
“A lot of people have this for a hobby. They just grow giant vegetables, whether that’s parsnips or whatever. And, of course, Alaska’s always been famous,” White said.
To understand how any of this is possible, one first needs to understand a few things about White. He’s an engineer, he’s an inexhaustible researcher, boredom will absolutely ruin his day, he doesn’t do anything in half measures and when it comes to his tomatoes, he’s got a particularly potent source of motivation — grandkids who think the project is incredibly cool.
“They’re over every night looking at the tomatoes, looking at the chickens and it’s just good for the kids, so that’s the reason we did it,” White said, scrolling through pictures of Ethan, Mackenzie and Caleb White, ages 10, 8 and 6, grinning while two-hand hefting bulbous green tomatoes that are bigger than their heads. “As you can see, they kind of really enjoyed the whole thing.”
White is from Idaho. By trade he’s a civil engineer, having worked on designing drinking water plants at Eklutna, Juneau, Fairbanks and across the country. He’s now mostly retired, though he still takes jobs occasionally when he runs out of other things to keep himself occupied. By lifestyle they were farmers, raising two sons along with a big garden, hay, cattle and hogs, and being active in the state fair. When he and his wife, Cindy, moved to Soldotna in 2012, following their son, Stephen, who bought the Soldotna Gentle Dental practice, White at first thought he’d be leaving agriculture behind.
But it didn’t take long to realize what was possible with the combination of Alaska’s long summer days, a little ingenuity and the amplification of high tunnels.
He bought his first as a kit out of Missouri, a 30-by-96-foot, 14-foot tall, 3,000-square-foot affair with a heater as well as fans and thermostatically controlled vents for air circulation.
Then he decided he could do just as well himself and for a fraction of the cost. He ought a couple of fixed-radius tube benders from outfit in Texas, a bunch of pipe from Home Depot and some 6-mil plastic sheeting and put up two, 20-by-88-foot, 11-foot tall, 2,000-square-foot high tunnels, copying the design elements he liked from the kit model and rectifying those he didn’t. The curved roof ribs on the smaller high tunnels have diagonal support struts, like their big brother, to brace against winter snow load, but instead of a helical anchoring system, White went with duck-bill anchors jackhammered down three 3 feet past the clay layer providing 3,000 psi of pullout strength to keep them secure in high wind events.
“No, they’re not coming out,” he said. “The parts and pieces on this is about $2,500, as opposed to that at $20,000. This is a very doable thing because you can make it at any length you want,” he said.
He plans to add a roll-up system to the sides next year to help with temperature control. One thing he didn’t expect growing in Alaska was it could get too hot.
“The problem is it can be 45 degrees out here and once that sun comes out in Alaska, it’s 80 degrees in there. Once it gets to be 50 degrees, it’s 100 degrees in there, and without the roll-up sides you kill everything,” he said.
Moisture management also is key.
“Every day I get up and come out here in the growing season and I roll up those side walls and turn on those fans for about two hours,” he said. “And the reason is that all that moisture accumulates in here and it’s very humid, and if you don’t vent your high tunnels every day and get that humidity out you’re going to have mold and mildew problems. You just have to do it.”
In the smaller high tunnels he grew berries, raised chickens and attempted a giant pumpkin, but went a little overboard in helping Mother Nature along. He installed fluorescent lights and a hot water system with a PEX loop to keep it warm.
“But I think I actually caused verticillium wilt to start because they do need a dark cycle,” he said. ‘It was like, ‘Oh my goodness, 250 pounds, that’s horrible.’ I didn’t even take it to the fair.”
It’s hard to imagine a linebacker-sized gourd being a failure, but when the state record is over 1,200 pounds, a mere 250 is a lightweight.