From our perspective, many agricultural “developments” deserve quotations. The Agricultural Industrial Complex of Monsanto and their ilk more frequently serve to further their own economic gain rather than preserve species or better the health and livelihoods of the farmer or consumer.
Preserving the genetics of fruit and vegetable species down to their paleo-botanical ancestry is an entirely different story, and may be our best chance to overcome the obstacles of harsher and harsher weather conditions.
Like other small farmers and researchers, Brad Gates is trying to ensure a future for the tomato by breeding hardier varieties and persuading more Americans to grow their own.
NAPA, Calif. — In a borrowed van, Brad Gates of Wild Boar Farms sped south on Interstate 680 with hundreds of fuzzy tomato seedlings bumping around in the back, their trembling leaves, warmed by the sun, filling the cab with the smell of summer. It was one of a half-dozen deliveries on his to-do list.
Born and raised in Northern California, Mr. Gates has been organically farming tomatoes in the region for 25 years, working on small leased plots and introducing new varieties with cult followings, like the dark, meaty Black Beauty and the striped, rosy-pink Dragon’s Eye.
For most of that time, he sold his tomatoes to top restaurants, including Chez Panisse in Berkeley. But a few years ago he completely rethought his work. Galvanized by climate change, he joined a growing number of farmers who are trying to find a future for their threatened crops — in his case, the queen of the farmers’ market.
Mr. Gates now grows thousands of tomato plants each year, selling the young ones to local shops and the seeds all over the country through his website and catalogs, encouraging people to grow their own at home. He believes that the tomato’s survival and continued deliciousness depend on the plant’s diversity, and he considers breeding hardy, cold-tolerant and heat-tolerant varieties an essential part of his work — not just to provide food, but also to expand the number of places where the plant can flourish.
Many of the supermarket tomatoes that Americans buy are grown in Florida and California, and some arrive throughout the year from Mexico and Canada. Barry Estabrook chronicled the real cost of cheap, year-round, industrially farmed tomatoes in his 2012 book, “Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit,” which detailed the use of chemicals and the exploitation of workers in Florida.
Since then, Mr. Estabrook said in an interview, conditions have been improved in Florida through the Fair Food Program, a coalition that protects workers and educates them on the effects of dangerous chemicals. “These tomato companies that used to treat workers like they were totally disposable are getting serious about competing with each other, because there aren’t enough migrant workers in this country,” he said. “It’s a huge crisis.”
Mr. Gates, who usually works alone, is small-time, and has no interest in scaling up. He leases a greenhouse to start his seedlings and runs the seed business out of a closet in his living room. His dream is to open a nursery in nearby Sacramento and run it with the help of his family.
Mr. Gates, 51, tends to speak in an outdoor voice and to gesture broadly with thick, cracked hands. He refers to shiny, red, out-of-season tomatoes, which he considers boggy and tasteless, as “water dogs.” He thinks the best tomatoes, both for the planet and for the palate, are homegrown or grown on small farms in summer.
He left landscaping and got his start in the tomato business in the early 1990s, when gnarly, bumpy, weird-looking heirloom tomatoes were becoming a hot seller at farmers’ markets. Mr. Gates grew a few hundred varieties, and sold the tomatoes in Oakland. Back then, his business was all about outrageous aesthetics.
Tomatoes self-pollinate, but occasionally, Mr. Gates would come across a one-of-a-kind plant that had cross-pollinated naturally in his garden. The tomatoes they produced were colorful and lumpy, and some tasted very good. So he studied the breeding of tomatoes, searching for what he called the “holy grail.”
“That’s when someone grows it and someone bites it, and they’re satisfied,” he said. “They get the all-around ride.”
Like many tomato growers, he was scrutinizing his plants each year, selecting for sweetness, tang and savoriness, as well as productivity. He bred stripes and color into the tomatoes, bringing out any odd, unforgettable characteristics that would grab attention at market.
A quick glance at any commercial seed catalog will show that the tomato competition is fierce, with many hundreds of varieties. “In the last 10 years, tomatoes have changed more than in their entire existence,” Mr. Gates said.
About six years ago, he began to notice that the Northern California climate was becoming more intense and unpredictable. “A little struggle builds a tomato’s character, just like a person’s,” he said. “But it’s become a real roller-coaster ride out there.” Harvests weren’t just reduced; they were lost.
So Mr. Gates turned to selling young plants and about 60 varieties of seeds, alongside fully grown tomatoes, to help offset the uncertainties of farming. He quickly realized that he was no longer breeding tomatoes just for looks and taste, but for extreme tolerance in a rapidly changing, increasingly inhospitable planet.