"That one right there," said John V.R. Evans, his native Welsh lilt dropping to a reverential near-whisper. "That could be a winner. Major, major potential."
It was a glorious, bright day in Alaska's Matanuska Valley, and Evans's backyard garden was framed by the majestic peaks of the Chugach and Talkeetna mountain ranges.
But to Evans, what was most beautiful about the scene were the fast-growing plants in the ground, one already five feet across and swelling as much as an inch a day under a sun that barely sets this time of year.
"That's a cabbage, man," he pointed out proudly -- and, if all grows well, one of his entries in the giant-vegetable contest at the Alaska State Fair here.
Evans certainly knows how to pick 'em -- the man holds 14 all-time records at the fair, and he's been in the Heaviest Fruit and Vegetables category in the Guinness World Records book seven times. Guinness still lists the crowning achievement of Evans's career: No one on record has ever grown a larger carrot.
"You wouldn't believe what a fantastic feeling that was," Evans said of his 1998 feat.
"It's the biggest high you could imagine, to pull a 19-pound carrot out of the ground."
So perhaps he exaggerates -- Guinness lists his carrot as 18 pounds 13 ounces. It's a Bunyanesque stretch of a core truth that belies Alaska's frozen-north image: The state is an ideal place to grow really, really big vegetables.
As in, a 75.75-pound rutabaga. A 63.3-pound celery. A 39.2-pound turnip. World records, all.
With rich, glacier-ground volcanic soil and summer days that have 20 hours of sunshine -- a lot of photo to generate the synthesis -- the fertile valleys here attract big-veggie growers the way Mount Everest attracts climbers.
Alaska's agricultural industry is tiny. It took in about $50 million last year, ranking last among the 50 states. California grossed $27.8 billion.
But what it lacks in size, Alaska makes up for in, well, size.
To a small but obsessed group of farmers, the holy grail is the giant cabbage, the centerpiece award at the annual fair, which this year will be Aug. 25 through Sept. 5.
"They're very demanding but very beautiful plants, sort of like a giant green rose," said Scott Robb, a Palmer grower who said he was devastated one year when moose nibbled away a potential prizewinner. He put up an electric fence to stop the beasts from doing that again.
Robb first came to Alaska in the 1970s to work in the North Slope oil fields. In time he gravitated here, about 50 miles northeast of Anchorage, and started growing.
"When I was a kid growing up in Ohio, I read a lot of stories about Alaska," he said. "The last frontier, the call of the wild, sled dogs, all of that sort of thing. I think giant cabbages go right along with it."
Robb's career is nothing short of masterful: seven all-time fair records, including a 64.8-pound cantaloupe, and two still listed by Guinness, the celery and the rutabaga.
But the big prize has eluded both him and Evans, and they chase it no less fervently than batters going after Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak.
Neither has come close to the giant cabbage mark set by Barb Everingham in 2000.
Tears ran down her cheeks, the Anchorage Daily News reported, when the announcer told a stunned crowd that she had shattered the U.S. triple-digit barrier. Her 105.6-pound cabbage remains on the Alaska record books.
Everingham, who works in the fabrics department at the Wal-Mart in nearby Wasilla, has since hung up her gardening gloves. She can still remember the details of growing the record-setting cabbage.
She watered it constantly, protected it with plastic tents in hailstorms, chased away pecking birds, even put up cinder blocks to help break a fierce summer wind.
"That baby took a lot of worry," she said. Its dimensions amazed her at the end: "It was six feet across and four feet high."
Growers have all kinds of strategies for goosing their vegetables, some of which they share and others of which they keep secret.
"There was a fellow a few years back in the cabbage contest who said his big thing was beer," Evans recalled. "His approach was he'd open a can of beer, drink half and pour the other half on his cabbage. He said those cabbages needed a lot of beer." (The man's entry was not a winner.)
For now, the sport of big-vegetable growing in Alaska seems to be mercifully clear of the kind of steroids scandal that has plagued Major League Baseball.
There is no drug policy for the vegetables.
"It's kind of anything goes," said Kathy Liska, superintendent of large vegetables at the fair. Growers can use whatever combination of soil, chemicals, fertilizers, beers and anything else they wish. The one thing they can't do is inject a vegetable with water or other substance to make it weigh more.
Every once in a while a vegetable has been disallowed for other reasons. A cucumber entry, for instance, was once discovered to have been cross-bred with a different variety of gourd.
Hard as it is to grow a giant cabbage, getting one to the fair can prove even more challenging.
First, there's the problem of getting it out of the ground, which the growers say can be accomplished just one way: very carefully.
"When a cabbage gets that big, it can start creaking and cracking like a boat," Evans said. "They're very fragile. They can explode, basically. One minute it's a giant cabbage and the next, ka-boom! You've got cole slaw all over you."
Evans said it takes at least four people to safely move a typical cabbage entry to the fair. One person burrows into a trench around the main root structure and then severs it with a hacksaw while the others very carefully hoist it onto a flatbed.
Although he didn't reveal all his secrets, Evans, 54, a mechanical designer who sells seeds and fertilizer, did demonstrate what he called a brewing system for optimizing soil.
The bubbling coffee percolator-like device, roughly the size of a 55-gallon drum, uses water, peat and humic acids. "It's very, very strong," Evans said. "You mix it 10 to 1, regular parts soil to this." The "this" being very dark, thick, gritty and somewhat odorous grounds whose texture he enthusiastically invited a visitor to savor.
Evans, who moved here in 1990 after traveling the world, said he was first attracted to Alaska because it was "far from the madding crowd." He stayed as his passion for big vegetables grew.
Although some plants grow big here, they do not grow particularly high. The Alaska fair has only a few tallest-plant contests, and the all-time records are dwarfed by their Guinness equivalents. For instance, the tallest Alaska sunflower ever, at 16 feet 9 inches, is a pipsqueak compared with the world record-holder from the Netherlands, at 25 feet 5.5 inches.
Palmer (pop. 6,000) has an unusual agricultural history. It dates to the Great Depression, when 203 Midwestern farm families were relocated here and given 40-acre tracts as part of the Matanuska Colony Project, one of the more ambitious New Deal experiments.
Although very little of Alaska's agricultural production is exported, the state does have 610 working farms, up 11 percent from a decade ago, with about 900,000 acres in commercial use, which amounts to a minuscule fraction of Alaska's 365 million acres of land. Along with dairy products, the principal crops include potatoes, carrots, broccoli, lettuce -- and, of course, cabbage. The small, grocery-size vegetables taste better than the gargantuan variety, which tend to be bland and woody.
On a presidential campaign swing here in 1960, Sen. John F. Kennedy was presented with a giant cabbage. A photo of the event is prominently displayed in the town's visitor center.
For growers like Robb and Evans, nothing would be more sublime than setting the cabbage record.
Robb, 49, thinks that some year, somehow, an Alaska grower may even top the world record set by Bernard Lavery of Wales, a horticulturist who is profiled in this year's edition of the Guinness World Records book. Lavery appears to be the Michael Jordan of the big-vegetable growing world.
Guinness said Lavery holds 12 world records, including longest gourd (41 feet 4 inches), longest corncob (36.25 inches), biggest Brussels sprout (18 pounds 3 ounces) and, as far as Alaska growers are concerned, the big enchilada of all records: biggest cabbage, at 124 pounds.
"Lavery's had the record since 1989, but I want it, and I think I can do it," said Robb, somehow sounding partly humble and partly like Muhammad Ali. "I don't see any reason we can't beat it. We're farther north than they are in Wales. We get more daylight, and we should be able to do it. Cabbages don't ever really shut down when you have this kind of light."