Heirloom Gardener Blogs > Food Not Bought

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.