Potato and tomato farming legend visits Eat the Book



There is a good chance that some of Tom Wagner vegetables have ended up on your plate. Wagner is part of a small group of independent breeders in the United States and is a legend in potato and tomato farming. His unique, bred tomatoes and potatoes can now be found all over the world.



Tom Wagner started experimenting with growing and cross-breeding vegetables and raising animals at a young age, from corn and peas in different colors, to chickens and cows with special characteristics. His aim: proving that the old saying “nothing new under the sun” is not true. Wagner started by collecting various kinds of genetically diverse seeds. For example, he crossed the best tomato for Kansas heat with other tomatoes that ripe well but do not burst. "It was the way for a poor boy to create his own varieties. Seeds were my toys, I went from marbles to potatoes ", the American says.

Wagner got degrees in botany, geography and anthropology. During his work at various greenhouses, seed companies and farms, he continued his research. Agriculture was always in his blood, but he didn’t consider himself fit for traditional farming. "I am a kind of gasterophilus, I cannot seal of my thoughts. I cannot ride on a tractor for hours without getting distracted by the thought of lamb chops."



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 clear, sharp taste. Wagner bred this tomato in the 50s, when he decided to create a green tomato that would not suffer from bursting. He started with a green tomato and crossed it with other tomato species: the zebra tomato was born. This tomato is now offered by many seed companies.



Wagner likes stripes and therefore many of his tomatoes have stripes. They exist in various colors, from the cobalt blue Blue Streak to the Russian Kazak with its black-with-pink-and-green stripes. Another type, Into the Blue, has traditional red fruit but its foliage is blue.

Potatoes are Wagner’s other obsession. His ancestors – originally from the Isle of Man - survived the infamous potato crisis of 1845-1849 by selecting mildew resistant potatoes. Wagner in turn created varieties like the Skagit Valley and the Kern Toro. His potatoes are often amazing in color, flavor and nutrition value, have deep roots, are drought tolerant, and have more resistance against late diseases. This allows them to stay in the soil longer, which gives them a better taste. The major difference is that he mostly grows potatoes from seeds instead of from tuber. Most people have never heard of potato seed, but it can survive for years, does not pass on viruses and creates fresh, disease-free plants.



Wagner’s vegetables are grown 100% organically. After working with chemicals for years he realized there were too many problems. Today he uses alfalfa, kelp, dolomite, worm compost, traditional compost and other additives for healthy soil. He also searches for plants that can survive with less artificial irrigation. "With very little water you get a much better tasting tomato ", Walker says. In the same way dry beans grown without artificial irrigation are ready faster than irrigated beans.

With his belief in 'open source' breeding, Wagner has made very little money with his work. His first seed company, Tater Mater, survived for a few years in the 80s. Later he started the company New World Seeds and Tubers that focuses on delivering special seed directly to farmers and gardeners and that aims to create new varieties. But Tom Wagner mainly wants to act as a consultant for cultivators and breeders. "This is my art," says Wagner. "A painting is just a painting, it hangs on the wall, but my stuff can be grown by anybody".

Written on 11.02.16