Salinas is seedbed for giant pumpkins

10/24/2011 09:06:00 AM
Amelia Freidline

 

If you just lie around all day doing nothing, living off the fat of the land and slapping on gobs of weight, you might have a problem.
Unless you’re a pumpkin. 
Then you worry more about shrink.
It’s that time of year when headlines gravitate to the girthy, orange giants, like moons to their planet. 
Champion pumpkin growers are crowned. They break records, or records break them.
California’s Salinas Valley is a key player in this harvest ritual. 
The Xtreme Gardening line of products from Salinas-based Reforestation Technologies International is in wide use among the growers.
We’re not just lettuce and strawberries here.
“We culture mycorrhizae for the giant pumpkin community,” said Dan Balma, a salesman for RTI. 
“It’s a naturally occurring fungus that helps plants take up water and nutrients.”
RTI president Neil Anderson began culturing the fungus 18 years ago. 
It was taken up by giant pumpkin growers several years ago, when the first such customer pocketed a world record.
The previous record of 1,810.5 pounds was set last year by Xtreme Gardening user Chris Stevens of New Richmond, Wis.
“This year one of our customers got 1,807.5,” Balma said. 
“The record would have been the difference of a half day on the vine. Some of these pumpkins take on an average of 30 pounds a day, 50 pounds at their peak.”
In state competitions in October, Leonardo Urena set a California record at 1,704 pounds, while Thad Starr notched Oregon’s highest-ever, 1,685 pounds. 
Both are RTI customers, Balma said.
Canadian growers Jim Bryson and Kelsey Bryson of Ormstown, Quebec, notched a new world record Oct. 15 when their giant weighed in 1,818.5 pounds at the Prince Edward County Pumpkinfest. 
RTI numbers the Brysons among their customers. 
Several of this year’s top pumpkins in Great Pumpkin Commonwealth sanctioned events were scheduled to appear Oct. 20 in a media event at the New York Botanical Garden.
So if you need a flatbed truck to haul your pumpkin out of here, count yourself a success.
The RTI products used by the growers include Mykos, Azos and CalCarb. 
Azos is named for a bacterium that fixates nitrogen. CalCarb, a proprietary calcium carbonate, boosts CO2 levels in plants.
Just how competitive the world of giant pumpkins can be is evident from the fact that some growers this year obtained samples of a new bacterium in trials at RTI, but more wanted it. 
Called PPFM — for pink-pigmented facultative methylotrophs — it converts a plant’s methane output into a growth hormone associated with seaweed.
The company boasts an endorsement from the Great Pumpkin Commonwealth, and has its banner on display nationwide at GPC-sanctioned contests.
A retail line is available through a client list that includes Orchard Supply Hardware.
“We package it for retail so the average gardener can add some mycorrhizae to the soil,” Balma said. 
“Your backyard might not have much of it, or it was disturbed by fertilizers. It’s beneficial.”
Lately RTI is linking up with Salinas Valley’s broader agricultural industry.
“We’re doing a lot of trials right now with Green Giant on leaf lettuce and romaine,” Balma said. 
“Instead of using a tried-and-true high nitrogen synthetic chemical, we’re just applying the beneficial fungus that can fixate atmospheric nitrogen for the plant. 
“(If successful,) it would mean a 70% to 80% reduction in synthetic nitrogen use. That could be a huge plus for growers’ bottom lines and the environment as well.”
RTI also has trials on onion fields in the King City, Calif., area. 
Spinach doesn’t benefit from mycorrhizae, but the company is looking at alternatives there.
mhornick@thepacker.com
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