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.
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.
I knew I could continue to give a few plants to friends, as I always did, and keep the success of the ‘Ivan’ confined to my little gardening world. Or I could share the ‘Ivan’ on a larger scale and make a real difference. I took on the responsibility of saving the ‘Ivan’ and getting its strong genetics out into the world. I’d grown this tomato for enough years to know it was something special, and I knew it wasn’t just me; I’d received positive feedback from a number of friends and local gardeners who’d also grown this hardy cultivar.
Right around the time that I realized the ‘Ivan’ could easily go extinct, I was working as a professor for a local all-women’s private college and had just finished teaching a class on small business startups. I knew starting a business was no easy task — it takes money, time, effort, and passion. However, I’d recently learned that 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’d be out on my own, pitchfork and all.
I began talking to friends about the idea of starting a small business to save the ‘Ivan’ tomato. A couple of friends, Jordan Casey and Curtis Hess, had some of the assets we needed, including the strength, knowledge, and even land. We decided to work together and The ‘Ivan’ Tomato Rescue Project was born. They planted some of my plants at Jordan’s farm, and the first seed tomatoes took root. Jordan and Curtis started chatting it up with other folks, too. The momentum was building.
Within a few weeks, I got a call from Jordan, who said they’d been doing an odd job at a farm in Ashland and met the family who’d originally raised and sold the ‘Ivan.’ We learned that the father of the family had died, and they’d closed their family nursery. They weren’t even sure if they had seeds left. We had a meeting with the family and learned they had a greenhouse to contribute. All the pieces were falling into place.
The next few months brought many new experiences, challenges, and successes. We built an Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign that raised more than $4,400. We sent seeds to more than 100 people in 27 states and five countries, and we ended up with enough funds to help pay for our first successful growing season.
We grew a few thousand plants in the greenhouses donated by the original seed owners. We built a distribution network for all these plants and marketed our products at the Columbia Farmers Market, at local Earth Day celebrations, and at the Baker Creek Spring Planting Festival. With the help of a friend, we created a website to share information about our project and post new photos and updates. We even included an e-commerce platform on the website to sell seeds and ‘Ivan’ gear.
During the following months, we spent quality time building the social media buzz with The ‘Ivan’ Tomato Rescue Project Facebook page, and we connected with other like-minded groups. The ‘Ivan’ story was strong, and we soon had media companies knocking on our doors. We were covered by Feast, Vox, Columbia Missourian, Slow Food’s newsletter, Inside Columbia Magazine, and more. Our suspicions were confirmed — when folks heard the ‘Ivan’ tomato’s story, they were willing to help us build the momentum.
By the end of the season, we’d sold more than 800 ‘Ivan’ tomato plants, and we’d saved plenty of seed to continue the project. We’d covered our costs and even had enough money left over to contribute toward a small greenhouse in my backyard. The greenhouse was made from reclaimed windows, which reduced our expenses to just the framing, roofing, and accoutrements; and now we have a space to grow plugs for next year’s starts. We consider our first growing season a success, and we hope to see more gardeners nationwide have success with the ‘Ivan’!
Support the ‘Ivan’ Tomato Rescue Project
If you’re interested in supporting The ‘Ivan’ Tomato Rescue Project, check out its Facebook page.
Laura Flacks-Narrol is a regular blogger for our sister publication, Heirloom Gardener. You can follow The ‘Ivan’ Tomato Rescue Project — along with Laura’s other gardening adventures — online at https://www.heirloomgardener.com/blogs/food-not-bought.