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How I Saved the Ivan Tomato - It's all in the Story

Firstly, this is not a story that can be told in one blog post, so you’ll have to come with me on this ride to hear pieces and part of the Journey.

 From Faculty to Farmer

When this all began, I was working as a professor for a local all-women private college, where I had been happily teaching for five years. My area of expertise was business and marketing. So why am I writing about gardening, you might ask? As a dear friend once observed, I was half boardroom executive and half homesteader and she was happy to know both of us. My executive side was unraveling the world of social media marketing and communication and teaching it to excited young minds. The homesteader side was canning food and growing record yields out of my backyard beds. 

I knew the Ivan was a great plant and I knew that I had not seen the family of its origin for several years now.  I had just finished teaching a class on Small Business Startups and figured Why Not Me, Why Not the IVAN!  I knew starting a business was no easy task — it took money, time, effort, etc., etc.  At about this time I found out my college was cutting our program and releasing all non-tenure track faculty. I had a few months left in the academic year and then I would be out on my own, pitchfork and all. 

This is when I decide I had drunk the entrepreneurial Kool-Aid not just talked the talk. Rarely when you consider doing a business venture do things fall into place naturally, yet the Ivan seemed to. Usually there are many hurdles and many compromises as you ride the waves. 

In the agricultural business world, we are looking at even more complications such as acts of nature and opportunities as well. There are grants, subsidies, legalities, regulations, taxes, and lots of other things to consider. The least of the issues were physical assets like greenhouses and land. 

I started to talk to friends about it and get the feelers out there. I didn’t ask people if they thought it could work; I just assumed it would. I talked to them about how they could help the mission of Saving the Ivan. I got a lot of excitement, especially from friends who had already grown the Ivan in their own yards. 

A couple of friends, Jordan Casey and Curtis Hess, had some of the assets we needed. They had strength, know-how, and even land. We decided to work together and the Ivan Tomato Rescue Project was born. They planted some of my plants out at Jordan’s Farm and the first seed tomatoes took root. They started chatting it up with other folks too.  The Momentum was building.

Within a few weeks I got a call from Jordan, he said they had been doing an odd job at a farm in Ashland. They got to talking with Becky at the farm, and it turned out this was the family who raised the Ivan. This is when we learned that the father of the family had passed and they had closed their family nursery.  They themselves were not even sure if they had seeds left. We had a meeting together and Ivan Tomato Rescue Project took on new motivation. Becky had the greenhouse, Jordan had land, Curtis had his passion for environmental issues, and I had the seeds and the knowledge of how to market and run a business.

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Picture From Private Collection of Becky Whitworth

We first worked on the story. What was behind the Ivan, the family, their farm, their story? How long had they grown it, where did it come from, why was this a special tomato? The story had all the qualities of a winner: great tomato, long-term family heirloom, Midwest American roots, and a special surprise. 

The surprise was the story of a Vietnam vet who had struggled with PTSD. After many years of struggling to maintain balance he succumbed to a stroke. To help him rehabilitate, his daughters built him a green house, took trips to collect wild flower seeds, and watched mother earth in action. Over the years they built a nursery business and he re-connected the dots of his life.  He believed in the healing power of gardening. Over the years, other people came to the nursery to heal and help grown each year’s plants. This story told of a struggle that is not uncommon to many in our society. This story gave us even more reason to Save the Ivan. 

Stay tuned to the next blog post to learn how we saved a bank of seeds, ran an Indiegogo campaign, and branded the Ivan Tomato Rescue Project.

Why I Decided to Save the 'Ivan' Tomato

Laura Flacks-NarrolWhy did I decide to save a tomato, you ask? Well it’s a long story, so I will try to keep it short and to the point.  I have gardened for over 20 years in my suburban backyard.  I have grown plants for several reasons. I’ve grown for food, and I’ve grown for the pure wondrous joy of watching life happen. Some years I have had better crops than others, yet each year I have tried to learn things that improve my yield and gardening experience. As I have grown food I have preserved it and tried to keep a full pantry available of Food Not Bought.

After many years of growing tomatoes, I still had not had the bumper crop of over flowing tomatoes, like you hear people talk about. I rotated beds, kept high levels of organic materials; I even tried all the vogue tomatoes that were supposed to be a sure thing.  I tried heritage heirlooms and I even gave in and tried some hybrids.  Yet, tomato success was like an elusive dream that was always out of reach.  I used to get the $30 tomato, as I watched my glorious plants grow strong and then succumb to some disease, bugs or nutrient deficiencies.

So one spring, as I was buying yet another type of tomato to go into my overcrowded beds, I told the well-meaning farmer selling the plants of my tomato woes.  She said I should try her family tomato, the ‘Ivan.’ She said it had been grow in Missouri by her family for generations. She swore by it. I figured why not, and got one strong-looking ‘Ivan.’ 

This tomato, for me, represented success in so many ways.  I planted it and for some reason it seemed to be able to survive Missouri’s odd weather.  In one summer, we generally had flooding, drought, heat and cold.  Yet the ‘Ivan’ seemed to be OK with that.  Like most places we had lots of diseases that could take out a tomato plant in a flash, yet the ‘Ivan’ seemed to make it through most diseases while other plants died.  To top this off the ‘Ivan’ had a very large yield and grew an enormous plant usually topping off over 8 feet tall. 

tomato basket
Photo credit: Kate Kogut

They say if you save a life you save the world.  I saved a tomato, does that count?  Eight years after I grew my first ‘Ivan’ the ‘Ivan’ Tomato Rescue Project was born.  The family whose tomato it was went out of farming and I found myself with the last seeds.  Literally, these were the last seeds that I knew of. I searched online and found very little trace of the ‘Ivan.’  No one was selling seeds and no one had plants. 

I knew I could continue to save seeds and grow them in my garden.  I knew I could give a few plants to friends, as I always did, and could keep the success of the ‘Ivan’ to my little gardening world.  Or, I could save the ‘Ivan’ and make a difference for the food supply.

I took on the responsibility of saving the ‘Ivan’ and getting its strong genetics out into the world.  I had grown this tomato for enough years to know it was something special. I knew it was not just me, as I had received feedback from friends about their tremendous yield and happiness.  I was not the only person who had experienced challenges with growing tomatoes, and was happy to make a difference in people’s gardens, kitchens and pantries. 

Now, ‘Ivan’ has being grown by 100’s if not 1,000’s of households. It has been grown in 27 States and four countries. I saved the ‘Ivan.’  How did I save it, you ask? Well that is a story for my next blog post.