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.
The big high tunnel was reserved for tall crops. Tomatoes take up the bulk of the space, but they’re hidden from view upon first entering by a wall of tall, leafy stalks
“It’s sweet corn, yes,” he said.
“I’m from Idaho. I just wanted to grow corn in Alaska,” he said.
And so he did — Trinity and Luscious varieties, intensively planted with three rows per 30-inch bed.
The experiment met with mixed success.
“I only harvested about 20 dozen ears of sweet corn, and it’s very sweet, it’s very good. I have no doubt we can grow sweet corn in Alaska,” he said. “But because of the long light period, the genome — and I’m not a biologist, I’m an engineer — but the genome is screwed up.”
The stalks are supposed to be about 5.5 feet tall, with one ear of corn growing 18 inches off the ground. The mass of stalks stick up 10 to 12 feet in the air.
“Well, if you look through that, you’ll find that some of them are growing two ears, some of them one ear, some of them no ears, some of them are 18 inches off the ground, some of them are 4 feet, some of them are 5 feet off the ground. The DNA or genome is very confused,” he said.
Not to worry. Problems are simply opportunities for solving, and what could be more fun than that? White contacted the head of agronomy at the University of Wisconsin Madison, the head sweet corn breeder in the country who developed the sweet corn gene. He offered to send up a few populations of sweet corn that might work better with the long light.
“We’re going to plant them next year and see how they do in intensive planting and see how they do in our environment on the Kenai Peninsula, and see if we can develop a variety that’s productive,” he said.
In the middle of the high tunnel are a row of fruit trees — Honeycrisp apples and another favorite White misses from Idaho.
“Well, I decided that I had to have sweet corn, I had to have tomatoes, but I had to have my Drawf North Star pie cherries for pies. And it only takes one of these trees, but I didn’t have four or five years to wait, so I planted eight of them,” he said.
His biggest success was the tomatoes, 150-plus plants of 14 different varieties — cherry tomatoes, pear tomatoes, beefsteaks, New Girls, Early Girls and about 20 giant tomato plants, grown from seeds from previous world-record tomatoes.
He ran a wire above each bed of plants and clipped the vines to line leading up to roller hooks suspended from the wire. That way he could wind up the line as the plants grew to support their weight from above — a trick borrowed from commercial growers.
Being in a high tunnel protects the plants from wind, pounding rain, frost and pests, but also from natural pollinators, so White took on that task himself.
“On my tomatoes I used an electric toothbrush. And every day or every other day I would go around and use my little electric toothbrush to buzz all the little blooms on my tomatoes. It’d take me about 20 minutes to do that. You’ve got to be a quick bee,” he said.
When his giants sprouted their rapidly growing fruit, he wrapped each tomato in a mash bag that was also strung by a roller hook from above to support the fruit’s weight.
“On these things they get so large, if you bend the stem no nutrients will get down to them and they quit growing,” he said.
It was an experimental year to see what grows best and under what conditions. White’s biggest lesson was to get started earlier.
“It was our first year growing in Alaska, our first year growing in a high tunnel. We just had never grown up here before so we started our tomato plants the first of June,” he said.
The plants got to 6 feet tall, but he thinks they could have reached 8 feet. They’ve picked nearly 1,000 pounds of tomatoes, and canned about 200 quarts, but White thinks the garden could have produced more. Not that he’s itching for additional yield — he’s already given away about as much as he can. But the late start did throw off his giants.
By the time of the Alaska State Fair tomato weigh-off Sept. 2, his tomatoes were still rapidly growing. They picked their biggest contender, one from his granddaughter Mackenzie’s plant, and took it to Palmer to challenge the previous record of 2.52 pounds. Their bright-green, apple-firm fruit was 4.5 pounds.
White had bigger aspirations, though. He’s a member of the Great Pumpkin Commonwealth, which tracks giant produce weigh-offs and records throughout the world. On Sept. 28, White picked his four biggest tomatoes, had them weighed at certified scales at Safeway and Fred Meyer, and sent the verified weights off to the commonwealth.
“The biggest was about 5.66 pounds and the smallest was about 5.16 pounds,” he said.
The last of the world weigh-offs are finishing in October. As of Tuesday, their entries were still near the top of the submissions. The current world record is 8.41 pounds, set last year.
“I think we’ll be standing pretty good here in Alaska. The four tomatoes currently are standing at 13th largest in the world, 15th largest, 23st and 27th, so we’re hoping that all four of our tomatoes maybe make the top 30 in the world this year,” he said.
And he has much bigger hopes for next year. Alaska seems to be a prime place to take a run at the world tomato title.
“One is we have an acidic soil, and tomatoes like acidic soil. The other thing we’ve got going for us is tomatoes just don’t ripen very fast here. Everybody else it’s 35 to 40 days, we had some on the vine for 70 days, and I don’t know how long they would have sat on the vine for, but if you want to grow giant tomatoes, this is a good environment,” White said.
He’s ripening his giant tomatoes in his garage in order to harvest the seeds to plant next year — by May 1, this time — along with more seeds from previous world record holders.
“I think we can do a lot better next year because we’ve learned a lot. I think we just know a lot more and we’re going to start earlier. I think our tomatoes are going to be bigger,” he said. “It’s go big or go home.”