A Natural Twist of Fate
Brad Gates of Wildboar farms didn't start out with intention to change the tomato world, but a natural twist of fate intervened. Brad Gates started out conventional and switched to organic and heirloom when he experienced their quality, taste, resiliency, and marketability, but that's not what changed tomatoes as we know them though it allowed for the opportunity. By just being an organic farmer, Brad's fields allowed pollinators to access his tomato flowers which led to a striped heirloom cross (what would become Black & Brown Boar) that would inspire him to become a tomato breeder. Since then, he has moved from putting stripes to anthocyanin blushes on every size and color tomato he can find - totaling over 60 new tomato varieties in 20 years.
What does this mean for me and you?
Making new varieties is not that hard! When I visited Brad at his Napa Valley farm a couple years ago, he shared with us how we all can make our own unique varieties. Not talking about adaptations to local climates, but truly NEW and UNIQUE varieties of tomatoes. It just takes doing the work of the pollinator first hand.
This same concept works for peppers and eggplants in the nightshade family (with potatoes you have to let them flower and then produce seed - YES there are true potato seeds!). For the EASIEST introduction to how hand pollinating works, start with squash (winter, summer, pumpkin, etc.). Their flowers are gigantic and obvious. With peppers and tomatoes, you may have to use a paint brush or tickle them with your finger as some do.
I've been working on new varieties and landraces of corn, mustard, kale, amaranth, and squash for several years. They are fun and easy to work with. The plants tend to grab the most useful traits out of the mix offered when crossing. It gives a plant that's been bred "true" for so long a sudden burst of genetic options to upgrade in the face of the new climate, management, or other condition. This is why Brad Gates' tomatoes are so disease resistant; they latched onto the disease and pest resistance of the original wild tomato used in the cross. They are superior to other tomatoes. I can even throw sow them without adapting them to my area or throw sowing for a season - they just thrive. We can all make incredible new varieties possible OR make the impossible adaptations of yesterday possible today with microclimates and permaculture sense.
Impossible to Adapt
Little did I know but when I bought one pack of each type of rare corn I could from Joseph Simcox's Explorer Series I'd be doing something no one else had. I read online that it was daylight sensitive, and I figured I'd plant it under the shade of giant oak trees on the shady side of a hill that only got direct sun in the afternoon. The silks matched the pollen release & it stayed dry and hot enough long enough. It took a a full seven months from planting soaked seed in May to harvesting the whole plant in November (210+ day corn) - then a month of hang drying the entire corn stalk with the corn still wrapped and attached for the most mature seed possible.
In addition to trying to adapt these corns, I crossed two varieties: K'uyu Chuspi & Pisscorunto. This gave the cross a choice between a wider variety of genetics to use to adapt to the new hemisphere, elevation, and sunpath. None of the other plants were successful like these were, and the area they were in isolated the two varieties to their own rhythm and clock - nothing was as late as they were! The second year I grew this variety, it shaved an entire month off its timetable. It's the 3rd year adapting my Impossible Purple Speckled Corn, and I'm hoping this year the corn does well in our test sites all over North America. If it does, it truly has adapted fully to our hemisphere in only two seasons!
It wasn't hard at all.
I soaked the seeds overnight, planted them in a cleared area (on swales on a hill), and watered them with a sprinkler on a timer initially - that was all I did. Later in the season once the silks came out, I pulled the sprinkler and hand watered and flood irrigated the swale in rotations (I could leave the flood irrigation on a timer and walk away and water the deeper root systems not just the surface). I cut the stalks at their base to leave the root zone (rhizosphere) intact and then they were hang upside down to dry under an awning for a month. You can do it too. You just need the long growing season. I hope to cross my peruvian corn with painted mountain corn to get the short and fast growth habit - both are flour corns.
You too can make your own adaptation or cross in your own garden this season. There's still time; flowers are forming as you read this. Speaking of projects, you can help me with one of mine: I'm trying to turn traditional native american popcorn all purple. I crossed Cherokee White Eagle flint corn with traditional native america white and yellow popcorn. By selecting for just purple when seed saving and planting, we increase the amount of cobs with purple and the percentage of those cobs that are purple seed.
Everyone can be a Plant Breeder.
Plant Breeding using Traditional Means is the Future.
We can Bring Back Biodiversity 1 new backyard variety at a time.
We need everyone. If we just had a 100 hobby breeders following Brad Gates' rate and example, we'd have we'd have 1200 new varieties of tomato in just 4 years. Imagine if we did that with all the food types? We need to, and it'll be fun, fascinating, advantageous on so many levels, and delicious!
Join us in the Regeneration of our Food Biodiversity!
Coming Soon! Brad Gates Online Courses & Books!!
PS: Another component of this would be wild biodiversity, foraging, and helping foster habitat as part of our daily living, but we'll save that for another blog ;) - Matt