The 'Ivan' Tomato Rescue Project

How one grower went from kitchen window to market booth, and helped a cultivar go from the brink of extinction to success story.

| July/August 2018

Sometimes you face a moment in life when you have to decide whether you're going to make a difference. I faced that moment as I held the last seeds of an heirloom tomato cultivar in my hands. I could've either used my seed-saving know-how to preserve a fantastic tomato, or let it sink into obscurity. Herein begins my story, which now is intertwined with the story of the 'Ivan' tomato.

Finding 'Ivan'

I've gardened for more than 20 years in my suburban Columbia, Missouri, backyard. I grow plants for food and also for the pure wondrous joy of watching life happen. Some years I've had better crops than others, yet each year I've tried to learn something that will improve my yield and my overall gardening experience. I also preserve the food I grow and try to keep a full pantry of what I call "food not bought."

After many years of growing tomatoes, I still hadn't experienced the bumper crop of overflowing tomatoes that people talk about. I rotated beds and kept high levels of organic matter in the soil; I even tried all the vogue tomato cultivars that are supposed to be a sure thing. I tried heirlooms, and I even gave in and tried some hybrids. Yet tomato success remained an elusive dream that was always just out of reach.

One spring, as I was buying yet another new tomato cultivar, I told the well-meaning farmer about my tomato woes. She recommended that I try her family tomato, the 'Ivan.' It had been grown right here in Missouri by her family for generations, and she swore by it. I figured why not, and got one strong-looking 'Ivan.'

For me, this tomato represents success in so many ways. I learned that it's able to survive Missouri's odd weather. (Over the course of one summer, we generally have flooding, drought, extreme heat, and some cold.) Yet the 'Ivan' seems to be OK with everything nature throws its way. Like most places, we have diseases that can take out a tomato plant in a flash, yet the 'Ivan' fights its way through most diseases while other plants perish and die. The 'Ivan' has a very large yield and grows to nearly 8 feet tall. This cultivar has a delicious, old-fashioned flavor and a deep, meaty structure that does well for fresh eating, canning, and cooking.

The 'Ivan' Tomato Rescue Project

The 'Ivan' Tomato Rescue Project was born eight years after I grew my first 'Ivan.' The family from whom I got the original seedling had stopped 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.

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