Tuesday, March 17, 2009

The Tom Wagner Great Tater-Mater Grow Out 2009

I've been keeping a little secret from you folks about a little local agriculture project happening around here, but I think I'm ready to share it with you now. About six weeks ago I was contacted by a gentleman named Tom Wagner via a gardening forum I occasionally visit. I already had some familiarity with who he was and what he did. Little did I know that a few weeks later I would be organizing a group of Clark County farmers to meet with him in person so we could assist him with what I consider to be one of the most important agricultural endeavors in the world today.

You see, Tom is an independent plant breeder who has been working primarily with tomatoes and potatoes for the last FIFTY years. You may already be familiar with Tom's work and may even be growing some of his creations in your garden or on your farm. He developed tomatoes such as the Green Zebra, Bloody Butcher, Green Grape, and a host of others. His work is driven by the quest to produce astounding amounts of genetic variety that can then be carefully selected for the traits of flavor, disease resistance, cold temperature tolerance, and nutritional value...although after speaking to him more thoroughly about this I think he has enough diversity in his collection to select for just about anything you could imagine. His personal germplasm collection is so extensive it boggles the mind. The rainbow of colors and nutritional value of the potatoes is like nothing you have ever seen or heard of before. His work is literally decades ahead of the seed companies, academic institutions, and government research facilities.

Despite Tom's insistence that he's not good talking to an audience and has a fear that people won't "get" him, I have to say that his genius in plant breeding is nearly eclipsed by his ability to communicate. He is what Malcolm Gladwell would refer to as a "Maven" and an "Outlier". I am still repeatedly kicking myself for not capturing our Saturday meeting on video. I guarantee it would have provided a much better explanation of Tom Wagner and his work than I am doing here. Someone would do well by making a documentary about Tom. It is of vital importance that information about his work is presented to the masses and the story of Tom's family history and his life would present a filmmaker with a very compelling subject.

So this past Saturday evening, a group of Clark County farmers and a few other folks involved with various facets of local horticulture and agriculture gathered at a farm in Ridgefield and spent over three hours listening to Tom talk about his work, his life, potatoes, and tomatoes. I think we could have easily listened to him talk until the sun came up. And now our little cabal has been entrusted with a small group of Tom's children, a fantastic assortment of potato tubers, potato seeds, and tomato seeds in an effort to expand Tom's breeding program. At some point we hope to recruit students from local schools to help Tom with his work. They'll be getting a priceless education in plant breeding, horticulture, plant biology, history, and genetics from a man who is one of the most foremost experts in what he does. Maybe we'll even perk the interest of the folks at the 78th Street project. Clark County was a potato production powerhouse for our nation some time ago. We could very well become the epicenter for new potato varieties for the future.

There really isn't enough space or time at this blog to begin to scratch the surface of Tom and his work. But suffice it to say, the work he is doing and the decision he has made to enlist our small group here in Clark County to assist him further develop his breeding program is the greatest agricultural endeavor to ever occur in Clark County. This work is of paramount importance to food crop production, food preparation, and local food system security and, in the near future, the results of his efforts will be of global importance. Today Clark County, tomorrow the world.

And here are a few pictures of Tom's potatoes I'll be planting for my garden this year:

You can also read a little more about Tom and his work at his web site or at his online bulletin board.


  1. Wow! I am absolutely thrilled and delighted to hear that Tom's entrusted some of his babies to good folks in Clark County. I look forward to hearing more updates on the project. Is there a secret password to get in?
    I think my favorite part (besides the potatoes themselves) are all the potato names. :-)

    -Hillary Ann

  2. Sunrise O'MahoneyApril 10, 2009 at 10:56 AM

    I met Tom yesterday. He is beginning to plant at 78th st. and could use volunteers, if anyone is interested let me know.

    His potatoes are INCREDIBLE! He has the darkest red and darkest purple potato I have ever seen. It would be a great opportunity to volunteer on this project to learn something about potatoes. I never knew you could plant potatoes from seeds!

  3. Mr.Wagner is awesome!!! he came and filled in for one of my teachers today... The whole time he was talking about probability and his inventions and about the trip to France... HE made a contest to see who could find out the most info about him and where hes going in france for our class so I'm trying to win!!!!