A 902-pound pumpkin? Why freakishly large fruits and veggies thrive in Alaska

For folks outside Alaska, the biggest celebrities at its state fair might seem a bit strange. While most rock stars arrive to their shows in limousines or tour buses, these luminaries arrive in the back of muddy Ford 350s and GMC Sierras, where they’re quickly ushered into the spotlight in front of cheering crowds. It’s enough to inflate anyone’s ego, but luckily these giant cabbages already had massive heads.

Thanks to its far north location, Alaskan fruits and vegetables frequently grow to gargantuan girths, found nowhere else in the United States. Each year at the Alaska State Fair, growers compete for bragging rights for the heaviest cantaloupe (64.80 pounds), longest cucumber (more than 2.5 feet), and dozens of other produce records. State-fair winners often smash world records as well.

Alaska’s love for giant produce

For Stephen Brown, a professor at the University of Alaska’s Agricultural Extension, these contests are a symbol of identity.

“Giant vegetables are a really big part—no pun intended—of how we see ourselves,” Brown says. “Everything is bigger here. Alaskans are proud these (fruits and vegetables) grow so huge so far north.”The pumpkin and cabbage weigh-ins, in their 17th and 27th years, respectively, are two of the most popular events at the fair, as fans want to see which prize pumpkin is pudgiest or which cabbage collects the coveted crown. The pumpkin weighing competition typically occurs a week before the cabbages, offering similar pomp and circumstance. Master of ceremonies Ken Blaylock even has an orange suit for the occasion, topped with a sequined green fedora.

In the hours before the cabbage contest, Don Bladow and other volunteers in green vests check in the leafy plants, measuring both its width and its stem. Each cabbage is allowed a two-inch stem, with the excess lopped off with a cordless Ryobi reciprocating saw. From there, the cabbage and its grower are taken to the weigh-in arena.

“If it only takes a couple of people to move the cabbage, you know it doesn’t stand a chance,” Bladow says.

Before the highly anticipated cabbage weigh-in, dozens of fairgoers line up for photos and selfies with the prodigious produce from the previous week. One winning pumpkin that tipped the scales at just over a ton.

Fluttering about is perhaps the second-biggest celebrities at the fair: the so-called cabbage fairies, who assist at the weigh-ins and wander the fairgrounds, posing for photos with fans. Resplendent in green, the six fairies who have played the role since 2005 retired this year in a post weigh-in ceremony, passing their leafy skirts off to their successors.

The competition attracts hundreds of spectators who want to witness the produce entries as they are placed on a huge scale. Each time a new produce leader is announced, the crowd erupts into thunderous applause. Entries are separated into three categories: junior, open, and commercial. Among the competitors this year, were several children who gave their entries names such as “Macho Man Randy Cabbage”  or simply “Bill.” One 12-year-old competitor approached Carol Kenley, a competitor and board member of the Alaska Farmland Trust, after the weigh-in asking for growing tips. He plans to compete against the adults next year, and says he needs to “up his game.”

Kenley’s grandson George took third-place in this year’s competition. The shy first grader doesn’t talk much in class, but his confidence grew after his photo was published in the local newspaper as one of the competitors. He told his mom he wanted to wear his ribbon to school. “To him, it’s a huge deal and worth talking about,” Kenley says.

In-between weigh-ins, one of the event hosts recites cabbage limericks—think lots of coleslaw and sauerkraut puns—that have been submitted from across the U.S., and at least one coming from as far away as Great Britain. Here’s one of the winning entries:

Oh that I were a cabbage today. 

Waiting in line to show what I weigh. 

My folds and my girth, 

Show off what I’m worth. 

Exuberant crowds will shout hooray!

Scott Robb, the current cabbage world-record holder, poses with the 138-pound winner from the 2012 Alaska State Fair surrounded by the “cabbage fairies.”  Robb’s 113-pound entry also won this year’s competition but the 2012 cabbage still holds the record.

How the produce got so big

Brown, the University of Alaska professor, literally wrote the book on growing giant cabbages. The fascination is a gateway for laypeople to learn about growing their own food, enormous or not, he says.

So, what does it take to grow such voluminous vegetables? Alaska has a fairly short growing season. But for a few months every summer, the sun dips below the horizon for just a few hours each night. The almost constant sunlight supercharges the plants’ photosynthesis process, giving them the energy to grow exponentially in size, dwarfing their counterparts in the contiguous U.S., Brown says.

Brown and his wife Eva participate in the contest each year, but he readily admits he’s rarely a top contender, preferring to do it just for fun. He and Eva plant their seeds on February 14— “It’s a cheap Valentine’s Day date,” he jokes—transplanting the strongest plants into larger and larger containers before moving them into raised beds outside, typically in late April or May. Some competitors plant their seeds and let nature take over, while others might spend an hour or more a day tending to their colossal cabbage crop. Brown, and several other competitors, have special watering systems that allow them to better hydrate the cabbage’s roots.

Most contestants wait until the last minute to harvest their cabbage; while cabbages routinely grow more than two pounds a day during the summer, they also lose that same amount of weight per hour immediately after being harvested. (In the right conditions, pumpkins can gain an astonishing 20 pounds a day while soaking up huge amounts of water.)

Cabbages thrive in cool, wet conditions, and this happened to be the coolest, wettest Alaskan summer in recent memory. Unfortunately, because of the near-constant cloud cover, sunlight was largely missing from the equation.

“If we had more sunlight,” Brown says, “my cabbage would be double the size. Probably goes the same for most of this year’s entries.”

Cabbages can grow to four feet in diameter or more, but most of the cabbage’s weight comes from its head, not the leaves. If the head grows too big, too fast, it can split, disqualifying it from the contest. Growers face other perils as well. Several would-be competitors blamed root maggots for sabotaging their crop. Volunteer Isaac Vaughan, 16, planned to enter a cabbage, but a hungry moose gobbled it up in early July.

“That sucked,” he laughed, “but I’ll try again next year.”

Loren Olsen holds a jumbo zucchini during one of the annual Alaska State Fair competitions. More children are starting to compete in the event. Among the competitors this year, were several children who gave their entries names such as “Macho Man Randy Cabbage”  or simply “Bill.” 

Cabbages going head to head

Perhaps the biggest excitement this year came from the reappearance of Scott Robb, the current cabbage world-record holder, who was competing for the first time in nearly a decade.

Using hybrid seeds of his own creation, Robb grew 10 cabbages for this year’s competition, six of which were likely more than 100 pounds. But you can only enter one cabbage, and while his 113-pound entrant easily won this year’s competition, it was less than his world-record breaking 138-pound cabbage from 2012. (By contrast, the winning cabbage from the first contest in 1941 weighed a relatively meager 23 pounds.)

Although no records were broken at this year’s event, there is an annual beneficiary: Once the competition is over, all the produce is distributed to local wildlife rescues. As large as the vegetables are, so are the animals the produce feeds.

“They’re going to make pretty short work of those big cabbages,” says Kenley. “A moose can probably devour three of the smaller giant cabbages overnight.”

This content was originally published here.

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