Brad Gates and Wild Boar Farms—in heirloom circles, the names have become synonymous with vibrant, even bizarre coloration and superlative tastes in tomatoes. Brad’s breeding work is nothing short of legendary.
But every legend has an origin. In this case, it began some 20 years ago. Brad told me recently how he got his start: “Originally I decided to work a couple of farmers' markets for a friend.” Heirloom tomatoes had only recently begun to be rediscovered and were just beginning to gain recognition. Brad was fascinated by the colors and tastes. He was also impressed by the prices quality heirloom tomatoes were fetching at market. Brad, who had previously worked in other jobs in the horticultural field, was intrigued, so he began growing them at various locations in and around Napa, California.
A sense of intrigue soon bloomed into full-blown obsession. Within a few seasons he had trialed over 200 tomato cultivars! That was when he “started saving my own seeds.” Brad noticed that, among all the tomatoes he was growing, there was occasionally what he calls “a gift of nature:” a clearly superior plant. Whether it was earlier, better-tasting, larger, smaller, differently colored from its more run-of-the-mill siblings, Brad would pick “the best of the best” and save the seeds. “I kept it up because there were just so many neat cultivars,” he said, and you can clearly hear the excitement in his voice.
Years later, he has dozens and dozens of stunningly different cultivars to his credit. Sizes run the gamut from cherries to huge slicers. And the colors! Brad's creations come in every possible tomato hue, often with two or three of them on a single fruit. “A lot of them have been lucky finds which I attribute to growing tens of thousands of plants and actually being the one going up and down the rows . . . to notice them . . . With a lot of plants to choose from you can get some pretty bizarre looking tomatoes; the key is selecting for flavor to go along with that unique look.” he said. Only a very few of his trial tomatoes are selected for planting the following year. “I like to grow about a hundred plants or more, then I'll select seeds from just a couple each season. “It's like a . . . Christmas present that takes a year to open,” he adds, referring to the colors, shapes and flavors.
OK, but what's up with the pig imagery? Brad explains with a chuckle that, years ago, he had no farm name. So he decided to name it after his favorite animal. As to “farms,” Brad, who seems like a no-nonsense, down-to-earth guy, explains that he was growing his tomatoes here and there, on various parcels of ground, so it really was a matter of multiple farms. So the name reflects that fact as well.
I asked Brad what the all-time favorite Wild Boar Farms cultivar would be. Without hesitation, he told me it is 'Pink Berkeley Tie Dye.' He indicates that the cultivar is his top seller, both in live-plant and in seed sales. As reasons, he cites its generous production, earliness, beautiful appearance and, above all, it’s great taste. The flavor has won numerous competitions, including an award at the Heirloom Expo in Petaluma California.
Probing deeper, I asked what the next most acclaimed types would be. Brad said that these would be some of the so-called blue tomatoes. Blue tomatoes derive their blue coloration from crosses made with a wild tomato species that occurs in the Galapagos Islands and in Peru. The species is bitter and inedible, but breeders have been able to cross it with edible types, and in the last few years, really good-tasting blue tomatoes have emerged. These have elevated anthocyanin levels, which makes them a very healthful food. Brad said that his “Indigo” series has been extremely well received, and 'Blue Beauty' and 'Indigo Apple' are next in popularity after 'Pink Berkeley Tie Dye.'
Though he started out growing tomatoes to sell at market, his business has burgeoned over the years, and taken directions he might not have foreseen at the beginning. Growing tomatoes for market led naturally into growing for restaurants, and Wild Boar Farms has done a lot of that over the years. Seed saving led naturally into breeding and selecting, and a major portion of the business now revolves around selling seed of his own creations, which he does do to a number of seed houses. Brad has also done a lot with selling tomato starts—last year he wholesaled over 20,000 plants to a number of retailers, including Baker Creek's Seed Bank in Petaluma, California. In fact, the other aspects of his farms business are going so well that Brad plans to reduce fruit production in favor of the other activities. Mainly he wants to focus on breeding new cultivars. That should be pretty amazing, given what he's already achieved!
I asked Brad to tell us a bit about what's coming in the very near future. He told me that he doesn't name his creations until they are stable, but he furnished come photos, and the appearance of the next wave of cultivars is incredible! As Brad told me, he and other modern open-pollinated tomato breeders are “rewriting the book on tomatoes . . . They have changed more in the last ten years, probably, than in all their prior existence—the possibilities are just unlimited. 'Round, red, and tasteless' is just being written off the charts.” Hear, hear!
Breed Your Own Tomatoes
Breeding new tomato cultivars isn't hard—it's been happening for thousands of years, usually with very little effort on the part of humans. The main work to do is selecting, trialing, and saving the seed from favored candidates.
Tomato flowers are usually self-pollinating, which means that if they come from a uniform line of ancestors, each new generation will be pretty much like the previous one. So outside of rouging out occasional weak or deformed plants, there's not much scope for selection there.
Occasionally, however, a plant appears that's noticeably different from its siblings in the row. It may have larger fruit, it may be earlier, sweeter, juicier, drier-fleshed, or it may be colored or marked differently from the rest. Anything that's different, and, in the gardener's opinion, better, is a candidate for saving seed and propagation. Seed is collected from mature fruits of such plants and saved for trial and increase in future seasons.
Next season, or even for several seasons after collecting seed of the new cultivar, you simply grow individual plants out, making further selections as you go. Seeds that appeared as a result of chance crossing will usually yield a range of individual types. Select the best of these for further propagation. Eventually, sometimes after only a season or two, sometimes after several years, your new cultivar will be “stabilized,” which means the genetic cards have been shuffled evenly throughout the population. At that point, you should see little variation—your new cultivar now breeds true, and can be relied upon to do whatever it is that you selected for. You will have created a new, open-pollinated cultivar!
Randel A. Agrella has overseen rare seed production at Baker Creek since 2005. He writes and lectures extensively, and owns and operates AbundantAcres.net, which has grown and shipped strictly heirloom, chemical-free veggie starts and plants, since 2004. He has recently relocated to Maine, and you can follow the development of his organic micro-farm, Parsnippity Farm, on Facebook.