Every winter, I peruse websites and seed catalogs looking for new or newly available tomato varieties that sound promising. Several years ago, I saw a striking dark purple tomato with green and red stripes, completely unique in appearance. The seed catalog claimed it had a rich flavor and excellent production in addition to its eye-catching appearance.
Of course, that’s what seed catalogues say about every tomato.
I ordered a small amount of the seed and we planted it. It was everything the seed company claimed, and it very quickly became a mainstay of our tomato field. If you’ve been a TFF subscriber for a while, you have almost certainly seen them in your box. Among all the other positives, it also turned out that Berkeley Pink Tie Diehad been created by a local Solano County organic farmer named Brad Gates who had also developed over a dozen other new varieties. We began growing some of those as well, including Pork Chop and Solar Flare as well as Berkeley Green Tie Die.
“Heirloom varieties” are technically old varieties whose seed is saved over the years. Brad’s tomatoes are not heirlooms; they are new inventions created by crossing two or more heirloom types naturally: “Retro” as opposed to “vintage”. They are “open pollinated”, and are not patented like hybrid varieties. That’s great for farmers and gardeners, as it keeps the cost down, but not so great for him. Had Brad chosen to patent some of his varieties, he would probably be quite rich by now. BPTD is now one of the most popular specialty tomatoes in the U.S.
Three years ago, a friend of mine brought Brad over to see our tomato field and we hit it off immediately. He was thrilled to see that we were already growing several of his varieties, especially because at the time he had lost his lease and had nowhere to grow tomatoes himself. We struck up a loose arrangement where we would allow him to collect tomatoes for seed after we were done harvesting, in exchange for seed. And the following year, we planted some field trials of new varieties he was working on. That allowed us to identify tomatoes that seemed to grow particularly well here.
This year, we have larger blocks of three new varieties interspersed through our five plantings of tomatoes. Like many of Brad’s tomatoes, they are all unusual looking, multi-colored varieties that taste great. I also like their names: Lucid Gem, Lovely Lush, and Crushed Heart. All three are producing extremely well, and we will grow even more next year.
Producing seed is a very different process than growing crops for food, with sometimes conflicting goals. (For example, Brad needs to leave the tomatoes on the vine until they are completely soft. Obviously we have to pick them before that point.) Yet for a small farm like ours, the availability of seed can dramatically affect our success each year. Collaborating with a seed producer is a great way to ensure that we can get the best varieties. It’s also a lot of fun.