In the 20th century, victory gardens were an effort in a homestead campaign for wartime success. For the Victory Gardeners, the trio of Laura Flacks-Narrol, Curtis Hess and Jordan Casey, the victory gardens are now a hometown effort in a campaign for food diversity, accessibility, community, and one special tomato.
Flacks-Narrol, Casey and Hess have united to rescue the Missouri-heirloom Ivan tomato from the verge of extinction. The heirloom tomato traces back to old, local origins independent of industrial agriculture and GMO breeding. A tomato, in other words, that has a heritage in the field and not the lab.
But years before the inception of Victory Gardeners, the idea sprouted after Flacks-Narrol started growing the Ivan in her home garden. Flacks-Narrol had struggled with various generic tomato varieties before. Crop after crop had wilted and withered under the vicissitudes of Missouri weather. Even hardier heirloom tomatoes couldn’t adequately withstand the conditions.
Then she purchased some starts for a different tomato — the Ivan. Thinking little of its origin or rarity, she planted with minimal expectations. As if from the pages of a fairytale, the new plant rocketed skyward. The Ivan rapidly conquered all the space Flacks-Narrol could provide, leaping up to eight feet in height and yielding a continual abundance of large, hearty, meaty, scrumptious tomatoes. “It grew like wildfire, and it put out a ton of tomatoes,” Flacks-Narrol said. “And as other tomatoes were wilting away and having problems with mold, and everything else, the Ivan seemed impervious. It just kept growing.”
While dazzled with her successful discovery, Flacks-Narrol didn’t yet fully grasp the exceeding rarity of her garden’s champion. She did not preserve the seeds, and the vendors from the humble market stand would disappear for years at a time. The next time Flacks-Narrol found them, she eagerly scooped up some Ivan seeds and harvested them energetically. She started preserving the seeds annually.
Flacks-Narrol didn’t realize just how endangered the Ivan was until Casey and Hess, personal friends of Flacks-Narrol and mid-Missouri locals, fortuitously encountered the Ivan’s original family while working on their property. The family, which had originated and harvested the Ivan for generations, had stopped growing the tomato altogether. “Not only did they not have any starts, they didn’t even have any seed,” Flacks-Narrol said. “If I let this go, it’s really gone. It’s gone.”
Flacks-Narrol was now the sole publically known possessor of the Ivan. An entire species was down to about 26 plants and a small store of seeds.
Suddenly aware of the Ivan’s peril, Flacks-Narrol banded together with Casey and Hess. Their convictions on diverse, local food supply united them and propelled them into action. Each was a conscientious and avid home-grower; each had tasted the delicious benefits of the Ivan and other fresh produce; each had witnessed the harm of receding food diversity.
All three are acutely sensitive to the silent crisis of food diversity, which often favors industrial, large-scale agriculture over local, more natural methods and producers. Though the numbers are difficult to ascertain, Flacks-Narrol believes that by some estimates up to 80 percent of seed diversity has vanished in the last 80 years. Instead of these natural alternatives, genetically modified and hybridized strains dominate the markets. These are typically geared toward shelf life, shipping, and mass production rather than nutrition and taste, the Victory Gardeners say. Many hybrid strains cannot even reproduce, and thus are useless to local growers. This homogenization also leaves the food supply increasingly susceptible to extreme events that can wipe out entire blocks of crops.
“To think about how many species we’ve already lost, it definitely puts it in perspective for you,” Casey said. “People go to the store and they see two types of squash, and think that is squash. There are hundreds of varieties of squash. Same with tomatoes. Same with any other vegetable. There are all these strains, genetics, that are just dying off, and I think we need to bring it back.”
Furthermore, the group has seen how increased food diversity and freshness, from local growers and local heirlooms like the Ivan, can benefit health. Casey has experienced this firsthand, as a transition to a fresher, local diet has ameliorated his own chronic ailments. “The quality and freshness of the food, it really improved how I felt,” Casey said. “It also really helped my stomach, and how often I had to deal with problems.” Casey and his cohorts felt inspired and obliged to spread this same wholesomeness. “If you can just diversify your food, you could potentially protect yourself and your loved ones from falling ill,” Casey said.
The impending danger of the Ivan seemed to capitalize their concerns over the current status of local food and agriculture, and spurred them into action.
Under their new moniker, the Victory Gardeners hammered out concrete plans to bring the Ivan tomato back from the brink.
The group decided to harness the nearly illimitable power of social media and the Internet. Guided by the business acumen of Flacks-Narrol, an entrepreneur and former business-marketing professor for Stephens College, the Victory Gardeners launched a crowd-sourcing campaign. “My background in marketing and social media immediately made me think of crowd-funding,” Flacks-Narrol said. “I think it’s a wonderful avenue for entrepreneurs to feel out the environment and see if there’s demand for a product, and also go directly to the consumer.”
Working off Indiegogo, the campaign allows interested people anywhere and everywhere to contribute an amount of their choice to the Victory Gardeners’ cause. In return they receive a variety of benefits, including Victory Gardeners apparel, but most importantly Ivan tomato seeds for themselves (links to follow, for those inspired).
The campaign runs through Jan. 3, and with the resultant funds, the Victory Gardeners plan to launch their seed ordering business to the point of self-sufficiency, and to construct a greenhouse to foster starts and sell them to local markets. As their distribution quantity grows, they can qualify for inclusion in seed magazines and seed banks to further spread their reach. Growing off of Casey’s farm, they will produce as many Ivan seeds as they can, since the seeds can safely store for years.
“What I would like to do is up the volume and decrease the price,” Casey said. “If we were pumping starts out and seeds out at such a volume that we weren’t needing that money, we could drop the price and make this more readily available for the person who doesn’t grow food to eat.”
In the future, the group aspires to rescue and distribute other endangered heirloom fruits and vegetables like the Ivan to broaden the Victory Gardener’s appeal and impact.
But like the Ivan, which yields tomatoes continually throughout the entire growing season, the group just wants to keep giving.
“I needed there to be a philanthropic portion of this project,” Flacks-Narrol said. “There has to be a human side of what happens in the business world.”
So the group has elected to donate 10 percent of all its proceeds to various agricultural therapy sites, spreading the healing, restorative power of gardening and growth to those affected with ailments like PTSD.
“It’s easier to take care of yourself when you’re taking care of something else,” Hess said of the healing power of gardening, which the group unanimously embraces.
The group also cites community building and the promulgation of personal growing and gardening skills as indispensable to their mission to diversify food supply for all.
“One thing that is a cornerstone of Victory Gardeners and this whole initiative is content,” Flacks-Narrol said. “I believe a hundred percent that you must give exceptional content to people in order for them to be interested in your cause and be interested in your company. We have to educate.”
For example, every seed packet they ship includes instructions on how to harvest seeds from the Ivan for personal production. The group is also reaching out to local school programs and urban gardens to contribute their seeds to programs that teach farming skills.
“That’s something we would love to extend, to push on,” Casey said. “The availability of the food from your own source. Showing you how easy it is to supply not only yourself, but your family with fresh produce with such a variety.”
While the Ivan is central to the project, the deeper desire to teach and benefit the community also fuels the group.
“I’m a caregiver,” said Hess, who worked many years in physical rehabilitation. “This is kind of another way of giving care. Teaching people to grow their own food, their own good, healthy food.”
But perhaps the most important implement in congregating a motivated community around their project has been and will be social media.
The group already has a running website that includes frequently updated information on the Ivan, gardening and eco lifestyle. The group already has a Facebook page, and is planning to additionally launch a Twitter as a commons for Ivan growers everywhere to share input and information. The driver for the Ivan’s success, will not be the company wholly, but the growers themselves.
“I have the potential to have unlimited exposure,” Flacks-Narrol said. “I think social is the key to making this whole thing succeed. And if one person has something that’s shared and followed and shared and followed, an idea can grow into a mountain.”
But seeds can’t grow without nutrients, light, and water. And ideas can’t grow without participation, passion and involvement. Now the Victory Gardeners wait for the sparks of inspiration to spread, for the curious and the driven to gather, mingle, and learn about the issues, and to push this project forward one contribution and one plump Ivan tomato at a time.
“There’s so many good things that come out of this,” Flacks-Narrol said. “From the individual things that they get out of gardening, to helping community, to helping children, to helping people with disabilities, to maybe taking an inch of stress out of our oh-so-stressed lives.”
Find their fundraiser, as well as social media links and other information on gardening and diet atwww.victorygardeners.com or through social media at facebook.com/theivanrescueproject. Or access their fundraiser directly at www.indiegogo.com/projects/the-ivan-tomato-rescue-project.