Alaska News

Warm weather, trial and error lead to prize-winning Alaska fruits and veggies

PALMER — At the display at the Alaska State Fair on Saturday, the giant cucumber sat like a bright yellow dinosaur bone.  

The cucumber, grown by Soldotna farmer Patrick White, weighed 20 pounds. The old state cucumber record, set in 1990, was 8 pounds.

"Twenty pounds!" one fair visitor exclaimed, staring at it.

Nearby in the exhibit, a gorging red tomato, also grown by White's farm, weighed 7.15 pounds. That was a new state record too, handily beating the previous tomato record of 4.5 pounds set just last year.

Giant fruits and vegetables are a staple of the Alaska State Fair, which started last Thursday at the Palmer fairgrounds. But record-breaking heat, combined with new technology, experimentation and mounting interest in gardening and local produce, is shifting the mix of crops.

[Scenes from the Alaska State Fair: Cosmic hair and running gerbils]

Move aside, giant cabbages, horticulturists say. Make way for the warmer-weather fruits and veggies, like cucumbers and tomatoes, that were once difficult to grow in Alaska.

"People are just expanding their horizons with gardening," said Kathy Liska, superintendent of the farm exhibits at the fair. "We don't have to just see cabbages and zucchini and turnips and beets."

In Southcentral, warmer-than-average temperatures extended the growing season by several weeks. Local farmers are trying new methods, like high-tunnel gardening, an open-ended type of greenhouse that helps farmers get an earlier start on growing. But there was also more efforts to plant outdoors.  

Rob Campbell, an agronomist for the state of Alaska, works with farmers throughout the state.

"This was a year to try to grow the crops outside that you grew in the greenhouse," Campbell said.  "Across the board, that dry, warm spring got us into the ground outdoors quicker."

The early spring extended the growing season by about three weeks, Campbell said. The weather came with a higher risk of disease and irritation, and gardeners have to be diligent about watering. But it's been an "incredible" season overall, Campbell said.  

In a cool year in Alaska, it's tough to grow peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers and melons in Alaska, even in a greenhouse, said Anchorage horticulturalist Julie Riley. That hasn't been the case in 2016.   

Rob Brown, who owns Flattop Farm in Anchorage and sells produce and seeds at farmers markets and Alaska Mill and Feed, said he's been having an easier time growing tomatoes and bell peppers this year.

Through a federal initiative, Brown applied for a high-tunnel garden, which he's in his first year using. He's also running experiments that involve grafting watermelon stems onto squash or gourd rootstock, with the aim of growing firmer melons.

Brown wants to write a protocol for commercial growers who want to grow watermelon in Alaska. His family was from the South, so watermelon was a big part of his childhood.

One thing: Brown doesn't enter his watermelons in the state fair.

"I have to save the seeds, and they don't give you the fruit back," Brown said.

But he also does enter, in a way. Last year, someone who grew a melon using his seeds won a prize.  

Of course, the warmer temperatures, both day and night, is the enemy of the giant cabbages for which the fair is renowned. There was marked disappointment among giant cabbage competitors at last year's weigh-off when the winner failed to break 100 pounds — the record is 127 pounds.

Farm exhibit chief Liska can rattle off state records for the colder-weather plants. But she couldn't think off the top of her head of the world record for cucumber.

"I haven't got into those ones necessarily," Liska said. "It's always been cold crops."

On Tuesday, the giant pumpkins come to the fair. That's also a warm-weather crop. Some were already sitting on the fair's display, however. Liska swore she'd never seen so many in one year.

"Warm season," Liska added, standing in front of a corn plant and sunflowers.

Devin Kelly

Devin Kelly was an ADN staff reporter.

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