April 2017 Produce Parable
By Adam Calder, Produce Manager
Before Alexander Livingston came along with his Paragon tomato in 1870, the tomato did not have a very good reputation in America. According to Livingston, the first tomatoes he ever ate were “small, hollow, tough, sour, watery fruit.” Those traits didn’t deter him, rather they inspired him to work with nature and try to breed a tomato that was “smooth in contour, uniform in size, and better flavored.”
Livingston was determined to share his zeal for tomatoes, and he planted row after row of tomatoes that grew into all sizes and shapes. He did this for a decade and a half before his breeding efforts were successful. There was one plant in the whole field that was unlike all the others. It had a high profile, with many uniformly smooth fruits that were unfortunately too small to be of market value. Livingston took seeds from that tomato plant and planted two forty foot rows. To his delight, each plant in both rows bore perfect fruit like the parent tomato plant.
He noticed that the second generation tomatoes were also larger than the first generation ones, and yet they were still smooth and uniform in shape. He kept selecting tomato seeds from the healthiest plants with the biggest fruit, and after five years he had the tomato he was looking for.
The Paragon tomato is the first result of Livingston’s tomato breeding efforts. It was the first tomato in the world that was large, uniform in shape and had smooth skin that was evenly red throughout. Most consumers today take tomatoes that are smooth, red and round for granted but when his tomato hit the market it was a huge success.
We are happy to offer Livingston’s Paragon seeds for sale this year at Wheatsfield. Seed Savers Exchange in Decorah got their seeds from Seed Saver Member Mike Dunton. By the 1990’s, the few Paragon seeds still being sold commercially were often not true Paragons, and Dunton has spent the last twenty years investigating the veracity of the lineage of the remaining Paragon’s on the market. Dunton passed the seeds he found on to Seed Savers, and now Wheatsfield is offering them to you, so why not come and get a piece of living tomato history for your own garden this year?
Working with time, patience and within the confines of traditional plant breeding, Livingston was able to do something the world had never seen before. According to him, there was no other option than to look to nature for the clues to solve his tomato riddle, and as such he wrote in his book Livingston and the Tomato, “thus it ever is: Dame Nature richly rewards those who keep close to her methods of operation.”