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Something of a legend: An interview with Tom Wagner

Mar 2nd, 2012 | Category: Features

by Jessamyn Tuttle

You might not have heard of Tom Wagner, but there’s a good chance you have eaten or grown some of his work. A resident of Everett, Wagner is one of a very few independent plant breeders in the United States and something of a legend in potato and tomato growing circles.Tom Wagner. PHOTO BY JESSAMYN TUTTLE

Wagner, who grew up on a Kansas wheat farm, began to experiment at an early age with breeding his family’s vegetables and animals. He bred Indian corn in various color patterns, and peas with all different colors in one pod. He bred the chickens, keeping a whole coop of roosters so he could introduce different traits into each mating. He bred the heifers to be wild and long-legged. “I could have been happy just growing typical varieties,” Wagner said, “but I wanted to prove wrong the phrase ‘there’s nothing new under the sun’.”

He collected seeds of all kinds to build up genetic diversity. For instance, the best tomato for the Kansas heat was a variety that cracked badly. “We needed to bring in a new bull,” he said. So he added fresh genetic material to the strain, and was able to breed a tomato that ripened well but did not crack. “It was a poor boy’s way of creating varieties himself. Seeds were my toys – I went from marbles to potatoes,” he said.

Wagner went on to get three degrees at the University of Kansas, in botany, geography and anthropology, and became certified for substitute teaching. While working various jobs for greenhouses, seed companies and farms, he continued his research. Agriculture was always in his blood, but Wagner never considered himself suited to regular farming. “I’m a gadfly sort, my mind doesn’t shut down. I can’t ride a tractor for hours without getting distracted by a variegated lamb’s quarters.”

One of his first and most famous creations was the “Green Zebra” tomato, now a familiar sight at farmers markets with its unusual stripes and bright, tart flavor. Although frequently labeled an “heirloom,” it was bred by Wagner in the 1950s, when he decided to try creating a green tomato with no cracking issues. The tomato he started with was green even when ripe, but after waiting all summer for the fruit, nearly all of it would crack and spoil. He collected seed from a red tomato that never cracked and crossed them. He got, as it turned out, a red tomato that cracked. He started over. After hundreds of crosses, about a quarter of the resulting fruits were crack resistant, and he was getting a few yellow and green tomatoes in the mix. The stripes were added later from a plant he found while visiting an experimental garden in Ames, Iowa. While refining the stripes, he discovered that a darker green stripe with a regular pattern accompanied a more interesting tangy flavor, which now defines the “Green Zebra.” The tomato is now offered by many different seed companies.

As you might guess from “Green Zebra,” Wagner loves stripes, and many of his tomatoes have them. They also come in various colors, including bright blue, like “Blue Streak,” or black with pink and green stripes, like “Russian Cossack.” Another variety, called “Into the Blue” has traditional red fruits but blue foliage, making the tomatoes visually pop. Of course, he doesn’t just breed for looks, but also for flavor, nutritional value, and blight resistance, with some varieties remaining viable even after frost, improving in flavor the longer they wait. He has fun with plant names, occasionally mixing in Manx words, family names or wordplays that recall a train of thought or a particular memory for him. There’s a story behind every name, from “Helsing Junction Blues” to “Dancing with Smurfs.”

Potatoes are his other obsession. It may be in his blood; his ancestors on the Isle of Man survived the Potato Famine by selecting blight resistant potatoes instead of growing clones of the “Lumper” variety that failed all across Ireland.

Wagner has been breeding potatoes his whole life and has produced varieties like “Skagit Valley Gold,” “Kern Toro” and “Northern October.” Much of his research was done in Bakersfield, CA, but since moving to Washington he has been developing varieties that do well in our cooler climate.

Most commercial varieties are not deep-rooted or disease resistant, requiring the use of chemicals and artificial irrigation. Wagner’s potatoes, which often also feature great color, flavor and nutritional value, are deep rooted, drought tolerant and more resistant to late blights. This allows them to stay in the ground longer, giving them better flavor. But the thing he does that may be most unusual is growing potatoes from seed instead of tubers. Potato seed is unfamiliar to most people, but it keeps for years, does not transmit viruses, and allows for fresh, disease-free planting in a way that using potato clones cannot. It doesn’t always breed true, but Wagner encourages people growing his potatoes to select for the attributes they want and simply eat the ones they don’t.

All of Wagner’s vegetables are grown 100 percent organically. After working with chemicals for many years, he realized that there were too many problems. “If you can’t trust yourself using chemicals,” he said, “how do you trust the other guy using chemicals?” He now supplements with alfalfa meal, kelp, dolomite, worm castings, compost and other natural soil additives, while breeding plants that are naturally healthier and more disease resistant. He also favors plants that can do with less artificial irrigation. “With very little watering you get a much better flavored tomato,” he said, also pointing out that dry beans grown without artificial water take less time to cook than irrigated beans.

Because of his firm belief in open source breeding, Wagner has made very little money from his work, except for his own seed sales. His first seed company, Tater Mater, put out a catalog from 1983 to 1986, but he didn’t feel that he had the time or inclination to run a business and market it while still maintaining his research. Then just over a year ago, he started a new company with business partner Rob Wagner, called New World Seeds and Tubers. Their focus is to market their specialty seed directly to farmers and gardeners while continuing to develop new varieties. Their seed stock is grown on farms all over Washington State, and they are constantly looking for people to assist in their research by trying out new seeds and reporting back on the results, especially for potato seed. If a plant seems to be particularly successful or shows certain characteristics, some of the seed gets returned to Wagner for further development. Any growers interested in participating should contact him directly.

More than anything, Wagner enjoys acting as a consultant for other growers and plant breeders. He moderates forums at the Tater Mater and Tomatoville websites, and invites anyone to contact him with questions about growing or hybridizing. His hope is that his work with plants will be his legacy.

“This is my art,” Wagner said. “A painting is just a painting, it hangs on the wall, but my stuff can be grown by anybody.”

To purchase seeds, or for more information about Tom Wagner’s work, visit newworldcrops.com or tatermaterseeds.com. He can be reached at thoswagner@yahoo.com.

Published in the March 2012 issue of Grow Northwest magazine.

3 Comments to “Something of a legend: An interview with Tom Wagner”

  1. Diane Cohn says:

    I am very interested in your “Indigo pear drop tomato or any of your tomatoes. I live on Camano Island and. Oils possibly make a visit to Everett. Tried to contact you but am not able to. My email address is Cohnjd@ yahoo,com. Please let me know how I can purchase seeds or buy Plants.
    Thank you very much

  2. Diane Cohn says:

    Very good and how can I purchase either seeds or plants

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