Food Not Bought

Adventures at the Amish Plant Auction

 

My First Amish Plant Auction

There are times when you learn lessons easy and there are those that you learn by fire.  My first plant auction was a learning experience by fire.  Last year was the first year we did a market booth and we purchased many of our plants as plugs.  Thus, the auction was the main source of our plants rather than our own seeds.  

I had heard about this Auction from Becky who owned the green house we used and was the daughter of the original Ivan family.   Her family frequented this auction over the years to get plants for their business.   Unfortunately, Becky could not join me the first time I went down and I had decided to go it alone. 

I had only been to one other auction before and it was a University of Missouri surplus action where they sold old desks and computer pieces. I had purchased two $5 desks and left without anything extra. That action had been about 20 years ago. 

It was mid February 2016, I was headed to the auction with every intention of just watching and maybe getting a few herbs.  I knew it was early in the season and that they would be having auctions all spring long.  I was driving my Minivan and needed to stop off at Morgan County Seed to pick up soil for transplanting our Ivan Tomato starts.  

I drove down to the Central Missouri Produce Auction and found my way easy enough with the use of Google Maps ( http://agebb.missouri.edu/hort/auction/central.htm).  It was about an hour and a half drive and I was so excited without really having a clue about what I was doing or what to expect. 

A Fish Out of Water

When I got there, I realized I was in a territory I knew nothing about. There were as many cars as there were horse and buggies.  There were more Amish folks than not.  I was completely out of place in my city clothing. I stuck out like a sore thumb with my flowy dress, stylish sweater, phone, and modern gear. The connectivity had dropped off a few miles before I reached the place so it really felt like I was back in time.

When I walked into the place the first thing I saw was a central office with windows all around and line ups as people were registering for their auction numbers.  I also noticed a lot of boxes, that under closer look, turned out to be cases of farm fresh eggs.  On the other side of the office there were rack after rack after rack of plants.   I walked around a little bit, with my mouth hanging open, gathering flies, I am sure. 

I eventually got in line to get my auction number registered. The Amish woman at the counter looked at me and said, “You’re not from around here, are ya?”  I stammered, “No, I am not.”  She then came back with the proclamation, “That’s what we all thought.”   I kind of self-consciously asked what I needed to do and followed her directions to get Victory Gardeners registered to buy plants. 

I looked around and about half the folks were dressed in the modest and old fashion dress of the Amish, with the other half hearing baseball caps and jeans.   I was wearing a floor length burgundy sweater with a purple skirt and a V neck t-shirt.  I was looking the part of mother earth meets Lane Bryant.

Picking the plants I wanted

I walked around, open mouthed, looking at rack after rack of the coolest looking plants I had ever seen.  The lady had warned me that you buy plant in lots.  If you bid on a lot of 6 trays at $10 you would be on the hook to pay $60. The prices you bid were price per tray for the entire lot.  Most lots included a minimum of 6 trays of plants.  I looked at these collections with respect.  I also realized I had to fit it all into the back of my van.   

One of the plants that caught my eye was beautiful purple wave petunias.  I knew I usually paid at least $8 for a four pack of wave petunias.  I always bought a few four packs to put in my back garden.  I loved the purple blooms and the waves that would flow down my raised beds from all the corners.  I knew I would use some of those. Depending on the price it might be cheaper to buy them here just considering how much I needed for my beds.  Yet, you had to buy an entire lot and that was a lot of petunias. In fact, that was at least 244 wave petunias.  I figured I would sell them. People like petunias, right?  I wrote down the lot # with wave petunias.

I looked on and noticed several great lots of herbs.  We could use some herbs and sell some herbs.  There were at least 10 different lots of worthy herbs.  I knew which herbs I used, but I did not know which one other people would want to buy. They all smelled so good.  They seemed to come in trays of 36 and had about 10 trays per lot.  I wrote down the lot numbers with good looking herb collections.

They also offered great looking sweet potato vines.  I wanted to grow sweet potatoes. There were so many types and they were growing so strong.  I had never grown them before, yet a neighbor of mine brought in a bumper crop of sweet potatoes the year before. I figured how could I go wrong on sweet potatoes?  People will want to grow them. They produce food, right?  I started writing down the lots that had good looking sweet potato vines. 

There were so many things that looked so lovely.  They had a product called licorices that looked like nice edging plants.  A nice selection of flowers from annuals to perennials were also available.   There were hanging baskets, trays of bedding plants, wooden planters, succulents and more.   The amount of selections was a bit overwhelming.

Another area had eggs.  They had boxes and boxes of eggs. Each box had 24 dozen in it.  Some of the boxes were marked organic, while others were marked with family farm names. I was very impressed by this side of the room. 

The Auction Starts

The auction was about to start.  I got a seat and watched in wonder as the bantering began.   At times, there were two auctioneers going at the same time.  The fast, nasal drone of the prices going up and deals being made could be heard coming from both sides of the front area.  This required me to jump up and down checking out what was coming up on both sides.  

At first I watched and saw what people were interested in paying for the plants I was interested in buying.  If someone won an auction and there were several identical lots available the buyer could choose to get as many lots as they like.  I saw people buy huge quantities of plants for large scale nursery sales. 

I started to bid on plant lots tentatively.  Just testing the water.  Then suddenly I won a lot.  It was the ornamentals. They were just so pretty and only $3 a tray.  I couldn’t resist.  Oh my, what had I just done.  Oh well, I was sure they would sell.  People like ornamentals.  I swore I was going to be more careful.

Then came the petunias.  I tried bidding on a few of these. I figured it was cheaper than getting them at the stores in my town.  I did not get the first few lots. People really wanted the petunias.  I figured there must be a reason for this.  They must know how much people love petunias.  I kept bidding and finally won a lot of 6 trays of petunias.   I was very excited. 

There was nothing I was interested in coming up so I decided I would walk over and check out what was happening with the eggs.  There was an entire area just dedicated to eggs.   I did not know what to do.  I watched and saw that these wonderful eggs were going for about $1.10 per dozen.  We are talking farm fresh, brown, organic eggs.  I started to bid. I did not want to pay more than the $1.10 so it took me a while to win.  However, when I won I found out that the bid was not for just one box, which would have contained 24 dozen, it was for two boxes.  Lord have mercy, I just bought 48 dozen eggs. What on earth was I going to do with all those eggs? Eggs must go bad at some point.  I hastily decided it might be safer to go sit down back in the plant area. 

As the auction wore on I ended up bidding on the Sweet Potato Vines and won 6 trays of different varieties of those.  I also won an herb lot with 11 trays of 36 plants each.  At this point I remembered that I had only so much room in the van and still had to go by Morgan County Seed to get soil and trays.  I started to wonder if I had bought too much to carry home.

I had bid for and won the following:

  • 11 half trays of herbs,
  • 10 half trays of ornamentals,
  • 6 full trays of sweet potato vines,
  • 6 full trays of wave petunias,
  • 48 dozen eggs

Post-Auction Reality Sets In

Miraculously this only summed up to about $250 dollars, I paid my bill to the shaking heads of the Amish women.  They seemed to know something that I did not.   I had to use every inch of space to get it all in my mini-van.  I laid trays everywhere, I even stacked some that looked like they could take it.  I ended up getting everything in there.  I thought I did so well. 

I started driving and very shortly found I had connectivity back.  I stopped and looked up the sweet potato vines.  Oh No!  They were not edible. WHAT?! ? They were ornamentals.  Apparently, there are many types of these vines and only a few are edible.  OH CRAP!  Well, at least I had those petunias. They would sell… Right?

I drove back to Columbia in a mix of excitement and dread.  I got to Becky’s farm and started unloading the trays into her greenhouse.  She looked at me with her patient and kind knowing eyes.  She asked me what I intended to do with the petunias.  I told her I wanted to sell them.  She told me they would all need to be transplanted into hanging baskets as they would grow like crazy over the next two months.  The first fingers of dread slipped around my neck. 

Then she saw the sweet potatoes.  I told her how I thought they were edible. She laughed but told me that people like them, however they would also need to be transplanted.  Then she saw the herbs and the ornaments.  She showed me that the herbs I bought were plugs and in substandard soil.  The herbs would need immediate transplanting if I hoped to make something of them. 

This moment was transformational for me.  I realized a couple of things. First, I realized that I should not have gone to the auction without Becky and that I had a lot to learn.  I also realized I had started my first real season as a farmer and I was so proud.  This city girl from Toronto was now the mother of a few thousand plants and was taking the Ivan Project to a new level. 

Ivan Tomato, 2nd Year: From Kitchen Window to Market Booth

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The second year of the Ivan Tomato Rescue Project started as our first growing season concluded. We had a small green house in my back yard and some experience under our belts.   I began to plan out how to move forward with our second year in business while I enjoyed tending to my own garden over the summer.  I enjoyed a on a much-needed vacation; when I returned, the comfortable sight of my Ivan plants inspired me to take action.

I had planted about 11 Ivan tomatoes, in two beds in my back yard.  I saved seeds from the strongest plants and the largest tomatoes.  I constantly had jars of fermenting seeds on my back porch.  I ended up with a nice pillow of seeds and started preparing for the new season of seed sales. 

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My plan was to use the revenue from the seed sales to pay the bills to get the new growing season going.  The expenses of running a nursery are many. I would need soil, seeds, plastic containers, labels, tools, booth fees, fertilizer, gas, greenhouse heat, marketing, webhosting, printing, bags, postage, envelopes and other supplies.  This all adds up to a lot of money, we were dependent on seeds sales to cover the costs.  This was a lot of pressure to put on our Brand.

I started by re-assessing the team. This year we were making this a bit more of a family business.  My husband and kids were in for helping.  I also decided to partner up with Becky, who still lived on her family farm where the Ivan got Its name.   So together Becky, Todd, the kids, and myself took on the second season. 

We started by making a big list of all the plants we wanted to grow.  I rounded out the popular items with some cool varieties that looked interesting.   I also paid attention to the things people asked for last year, and got many of those old-time favorites.  I ended up with a massive list of Tomatoes, Peppers, Eggplant, Herbs, and many vegetables. 

For Tomatoes, I wanted big slicers, medium earlies, lots of cherries, variegated coloring, classics, new trends, and of course my Ivan.  For Peppers, I wanted hot, sweet, bell shaped, banana shaped, classic, special and of course the Nepalese bell.  Eggplants also have many desirable styles and tried and true varieties.  Herbs were easier to select after the previous year of experience. 

Finally, I had to think about flowers. I was not doing any regular flowers, vines or ornaments like last year.  The only flowers I decided to offer were milkweeds for the Monarchs that migrate through our area.  Last year I had ornamentals, petunias, and lots of ornamental sweet potato vines.  I made the decision to cut out that which did not sell well last year. 

The next step that brought us to early January, was to choose where to purchase the seeds.  My top priorities were to purchase from a local company I could trust.  I decided on as many heirlooms as possible with only three hybrids in the group.  I chose two providers, Morgan County Seed Company and Baker Creek.  Of course, I supplemented this with my own stock of seeds for the plants I had been saving and using for years.  I wanted my plants to be fertile and as close to nature as possible.  I ordered some seeds online and made a trip down to Morgan County Seed Company to purchase the rest.

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The plan was to start the process in my house, then move the starts in their 72 cell trays out to my backyard greenhouse for the first few weeks of their lives.  As space become an issue, we planned to move the plants to Becky's larger greenhouse in Ashland.  We wanted to wait as long as possible before turning on the big green house heat.   My small greenhouse was easier and cheaper to heat using an electric heater via an extension cord. 

Believe it or not, we germinated most of the seeds in my south facing sliding glass door windows.  I had two of those cheap green standing green house racks you can pick up at the hardware stores.  Each could take 8 trays of 72 plants.  The house was set at 68 and the sun heated up the little trays and brought the seed up beautifully.  Between the 13th of January and the end of February we germinated tray after tray of beautiful little potential plants.  I would mist them each morning and then watch the magic happen. 

We moved them to our little greenhouse and we monitored the green house temperature through a digital thermometer that I bought at the store.  It showed the temperature in the greenhouse and was pretty accurate.  I went through three heaters and two cords before I figured out the right combination to keep the temp where it needed to be at night.   Most days we had to open the door and let the heat out during the day and then turn on the heater at night.  We had a warm winter so it was not that hard to achieve success.   I will not lie, there were a couple of cold nights where I got up half way through and checked the temp to be sure.  

In late February, we started moving mature plants out to Becky’s place, where she had the big green house.  We began the incredible intense period of transplanting 1000’s of starts.  All those 72 trays needed to be transplanted into bigger cells.  In most of those cells we had put more than one seed just in case they did not germinate well.  We had record gemmations and ended up with a lot more plants to transplant then we expected. 

Transplanting was such a large job we ended up spending every weekend in the green house getting this herculean task done.  Todd worked filling containers with soil.  Jordan was often in charge of the washing station disinfecting the plastic and stacking it to be filled.  Becky worked getting the green house clean and organized.  Joel rotated from task to task and I worked transplanting and transplanting and transplanting.  By half way through March most of the job was done. 

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Now you are up to date on the Ivan Tomato Rescue Project.   The question I know you are dying to ask is about the seed sales.  Did the seed sales successfully fund the project?  Well I can’t tell you for 100% certain as we have about five weeks until we start selling at the markets.  I can tell you though, that seed sales have paid for everything so far and we are on track to fund the entire market season.  So, to sum this up, the seeds saved from last summer’s Ivan Tomatoes and the use of my kitchen window along with our backyard greenhouse successfully got us ready for an entire market season.   The dream is real.  You can be a farmer from your own suburban back yard. 

Which Rock Star Plants Should You Grow to Maximize Your Garden Yield?

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We all get so exited each winter when the seed catalogs start to arrive. I know not everyone grows from seeds and if you grow from starts you will be limited by what you can find locally. So, the thought of having 1000’s of types of seeds at your fingertips is quite the thrill. We value some catalogs over others but we sift through them all like we are brides planning our weddings. With each flip of a page, a new hope is born. This means there is…

• hope that we will get out of the cold winter,
• hope that our yards will turn green once again,
• hope that spring flowers are not that far away,
• hope that we will once again taste the food coming out of our own gardens.

Have you been looking for the right mix of plants to grown? With so many seeds to choose from it is hard to pick what makes the final cut and gets into your garden.  

For many years, I picked my plants considering all sorts of factors. One year I planted an international garden picking plants, with the help of my then 6-year-old son, as we went around the atlas from area of the world to area of the world. This was a lot of fun but frankly it did not produce a lot of food. These cool sounding plants, did not do well in our microclimate in Missouri. The plants missed their home soil, sun and biology. I learned a lot that year about the power of growing something locally adjusted. 

One year I picked plants by the coolness of their description and story. I looked for the plants that sounded like they came from the coolest, most adventurous background. Often the plants worked in native reserves or in war-torn countries. This method did not produce a lot of food from my backyard. 

I finally learned that I really had to find out what worked well right where I was living. I needed to know what liked our sun, soil, biology and even our pollinators. I started asking people what worked the best for them. I asked farmers, market vendors, friends, and I even went so far to call up Baker Creek and ask them which seeds did the best for them in the Ozark area. 

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The more I tried these locally, tried and true plants, the higher my yield got. Each year I started to track what worked well:

• which eggplants did better than others,
• which beans had a better yield without being stingy,
• which tomatoes put out more tomatoes without succumbing to the expected diseases,
• which herbs put out the most leaves,
• which cucumbers seemed to last the longest.

The Key was to  keep records of what worked, then make sure the ones that worked the best were my go to picks for the next year. It was kind of like locking in a puzzle piece. I knew, for sure, that Blue Lake Pole Beans would be my Pole Bean of choice. I knew that Rosa Bianca was my eggplant I could grow most successfully all around. I knew the Ivan were, by far, my strongest Tomato.  I also knew I needed some early determinates to balance off the late harvest date for the Ivan Tomatoes.

So, my suggestion to you is do your research and keep really good notes each year. Make maps of where you plant each plant in your garden beds. Make notes as they grow about yield, strength of the plant, size and other characteristics of note.  Pick your winners and stick to them year after year. Once you have your rock stars in your garden then you can experiment with new names, great stories and impulse buys. Each time you find another Rock Star add it to your next year’s lineup. Eventually you will get a core set of plants that works the best for you, produces the food your family wants to eat, and gives you a successful gardening experience.  

Now go out there and get working on identifying your Rock Stars. 

The Ivan Tomato Goes from Indiegogo to Farmers Market

Dragonfly

Saving the Ivan took many steps.  In the last blog, I outlined how the team was put together for our first year. The next step was to figure out how to build a buzz for a tomato that hardly anyone knew existed.  As a social media marketer, I knew we had to use social media.  We need funding so an Indiegogo Crowdfunding Campaign was a great way to go.  We believed that if we could get the Ivan’s story out there, people would connect with it on some level and want to support this fabulous tomato. 

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A village came together to make our Indiegogo Movie.  I had some friends that all put their energy into the film.  A film maker choreographed and filmed, a photographer handed us 19 gigs of pictures after the shoot, and a videographer jumped in to help the filmmaker.   My sister, an actor and writer, helped make sure the movie script was effective. Some friends who have a fantastic band, Dirtfoot, gave us the rights to use one of their songs as our music.  This all led to August when we filmed on Jordan’s farm during some of the hottest days of the summer. 

I began to build the social media buzz with the Ivan Tomato Rescue Project Facebook page, create a website and connect with other like-minded groups.  I spent months working on PR coverage of the story.  We managed to get the story into several media outlets including: Feast, Vox, The Columbia Missourian, KBIA, The Slow Food Newsletter, Inside Columbia Magazine, Post Gazette Pittsburg, and the News Tribune in Jefferson City.   Our suspicions were confirmed that when folks herd about the story of the Ivan they were willing to help us build our buzz. 

We launched the Indiegogo in November running it through New Years.   Our goal was $10,000, yet we only raised about $4,400 from 111 backers.   The good thing is that we raised enough to cover our campaign costs and get our first season of plants started.  We also got Ivan seed packages out to over 100 people in 27 states and 5 countries.   We did not meet our goal of having funding to build a full size green house and operation on our own property.  However, the exposure we got was a huge help and got the ball rolling. 

We continued to sell seeds, on line, through our webpage at www.victorygardeners.com.  We grew plants for our first season as a nursery and ended up offering 12 types of tomatoes, 10 types of peppers, 17 types of herbs and some decorative flowers.   We had a booth at Earth Day, the Columbia Farmers Market and the Baker Creek Planting Festival. We learned a lot. 

At the end of the seasons we had sold a lot of our plants including over 800 Ivan tomato plants.  We had covered our costs and had a little money left over to contribute towards building a small greenhouse in my backyard.  The green house was made from re-claimed windows reducing our expenses to the framing, roofing and accoutrements.  We counted our first season a success.

8 Important Things We Learned:

• We may love flowers and decorative ornamentals but that is not our market.
• Growing plants is a huge amount of work and takes every bit of time and energy you have available.
• When you are responsible for 1000’s of plants you cannot slack off, at all.
• Transplanting time is exhausting and expensive, invite friends to help, bribe them with free plants.
• Use great soil and organic fertilizers and get the best results.
• Tarping a trailer is not easy and not doing it correctly can result in losing 100’s of plants in about 25 seconds.
• Pay extra for better space at plant shows.
• Tell your story as often as possible and to everyone who will listen.

The Baker Creek Tarp Disaster

I will now share with you the story about going to Baker Creek Planting Festival and our tarp disaster.  We were so excited and looking forward to being vendors.   I had gone for years as a shopper and enjoyed it immensely while acquiring unique and wonderful plants.  The sale was in early May, right at the beginning of planting season.   We had requested the lowest cost booth to keep the expenses down. We had to pay for our transport, food, lodging etc.   We figured we would make the best of it and learn all we could from our first exposure.

The sale was on a Sunday and Monday. So, we did the Farmers Market in Columbia, Missouri on the Saturday morning for the biggest plant sale weekend of the season.  Then we packed up as many plants as we could fit in Becky’s trailer and tarped it as best we could. The trailer had two levels so the bottom level was covered by a hard-protective layer. The top level was covered by the tarping. We had never tarped a trailer before and did not really have all the right straps and bungies. We used what we had and figured we had it nice and tight. 

We left at about 8:30 pm so it was just starting to get dark.  I was following the truck in my Van with hanging baskets, camping gear and more plants.  We were about 30 minutes into the drive, at about Versailles Missouri, when I saw the tarp begin to flap a little bit.  I called up to the truck and told them about the motion.  We stopped and checked it out. It seemed tight. We figured it was OK.  

We drove off with me keeping an eye on the tarping.  About a minute later stuff just started pelting my car. Bungies, bits of tarp, soil, plant shavings, and plastic containers all came flying at me.  I called them again yelling for them to pull over.  We pulled over and assessed the damage. We figured we lost several 100 plants but couldn’t see in the dark to really know.  One of the top supports had collapsed on the bottom level mostly crushing whatever was under it. At least 2/3 of the top level looked like something out of a science fiction flick. It looked like something had come along and ripped everything right out of the soil, leaving some stems and mangled plastic. 

This was a huge blow to everyone. We worked so hard to grow those plants. My first fear was that it was the Ivan’s.  It was like my heart sunk, the rest of the long drive was done in silent sadness.  It was no one’s fault. We all needed to learn this lesson.   The next morning, in the light, we were able to assess the damage.  Thankfully we didn’t lose any Ivan’s. However, we did lose about 300 pepper plants and about the same number of herbs and flowers.  

I guess the lesson to learn is that when you start your own business, and especially when you are working with farming, you can’t project how things will go.  You can’t possibly control everything, and you must learn as you go. However, you can make sure you don’t make the same mistake twice.

We managed to focus on the plants we had at the sale. All things considered, we did very well. Our booth was at a less than ideal location in the back corner.  We should have paid more for a better booth space. We sold many plants and found an audience that was truly interested in this new tomato. People bought many Ivan plants and enjoyed our story and our mission. We learned many lessons about how to succeed in this environment and we had a lot of fun meeting new people.  We look forward to applying the many lessons learned as we continue on our journey to Save the Ivan Tomato and other heirloom plants and bring them back to our gardens and tables.

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.