Tom Wagner isn’t a businessman.
Someone told him that once. It wasn’t meant as a compliment, but Wagner accepted the comment with pride.
He sees himself as a plant engineer. A mad scientist. The Johnny Appleseed of tomatoes.
Anything but a businessman.
Perhaps that is why the Everett man, one of the most prolific tomato and potato breeders in the world, remains virtually unknown in the U.S.
His most famous creation — the tangy, striped Green Zebra tomato — is a favorite in home gardens, farmers markets and top restaurants. The tomato was a clue once on “Jeopardy.”
“Tom’s Green Zebra unleashed a whole new age in tomatoes,” said Amy Goldman, author of “The Heirloom Tomato.” “He’s made tomatoes fun, and a lot of them are delicious.”
He’s created hundreds of thousands of other tomatoes and potatoes — although only the best are trialed and grown and sold as seed for home gardeners or professional growers. Some of his newest varieties are part of a new class of blue tomatoes, including a cherry tomato called Dancing with Smurfs. Another variety he’s created is dark red and sports tiny horns.
For Wagner, the obsessive push to create new varieties is fueled not by money but by the drive to give something to the world that is new and better and wholly different. And because he can.
“I want to create the best food, the most nutritious food, I can,” Wagner said. “Nobody else is going to do it.”
Wagner, 68, talks fast, as if there isn’t enough time in the day. It’s not easy to listen to people, he says, because he’s hard of hearing. He’s more of a show-and-tell guy.
But plants, he can hear them. They whisper to him. They tell him things. Are they too hot, too cold? Are they stressed? Are they getting enough nutrients? Are they looking for a pollinator?
Wagner lives not on a farm but in a two-bedroom apartment off Casino Road with his wife — and his mistress. That’s what he calls the all-consuming work of plant breeding. It consumes his days and sometimes his dreams.
“They say you never should bring your mistress home,” he says. “But I did.”
He’s a meticulous record keeper. He saves seed from all of his crosses. They go in a plastic bag with a notecard noting the lineage of the plant and some notes on special characteristics. He keeps thousands of these in clear plastic containers in his apartment. Many more are saved elsewhere.
Wagner has developed a network of people who help him test his plants. His tomatoes and potatoes are being grown in Wales, France, Switzerland, Belize and Thailand.
The Herbfarm, a high-end Woodinville restaurant, gives Wagner space to grow plants at its farm, and chefs use some of his tomatoes.
“I respect him,” said Bill Vingelen, who manages the farm about a mile away from the restaurant. “He needs a sidekick that can help him physically. We respect his research. He’s doing things most people don’t, and it’s not profitable. He’s doing it out of love. It’s a passion.”
It seems as if Wagner himself was bred for this.
He grew up on a farm in Kansas. His grandparents bred and sold mules. His grandmother’s chicken breeding skills helped the family get through the Depression. One line of his family hails from the Isle of Man, and includes farmers and herbalists many generations back. His ancestors survived the potato famine partly because they were growing blight-resistant potatoes.
As early as 7, Wagner remembers his first attempts to breed animals and plants: cows, chickens, peas, beans, tomatoes and Indian corn with bright-colored kernels. He could observe and track the particular characteristics of animals and plants. He could tell his father, for instance, which cows produced the best milk.
Wagner earned three degrees from the University of Kansas in anthropology, botany and geography. He went onto have “about 50 jobs,” including a stint with Frito-Lay as a potato buyer, a teacher and a consultant for growers.
Always, he worked on his own breeding projects.
He started working on what would become the famous Green Zebra tomato in the 1950s. He was disappointed with the green tomato available in Kansas at the time. It cracked and its flesh was too soft and mushy. Wagner began experimenting with other tomatoes, trying to keep the good characteristics and breed out the bad.
It took nearly two decades and hundreds of crosses before Wagner finally produced the Green Zebra: sweet, tangy and lined with visually-striking yellow and green stripes.
He remembers running into the farmhouse he shared with his parents.
“I showed it to my dad and he said, ‘Nobody is going to want a tomato that’s green.’”
How wrong his father was. The tomato became famous after Alice Waters, chef, author and owner of Chez Panisse, a famous Berkeley, California, restaurant, listed it as one of her favorites.
Wagner makes little money from his work. He started Tater Mater in 1983 and put out a catalog for three years. He didn’t have the time or business skills to manage the catalog and continue his work. Now his seeds are available online through his website TaterMaterSeeds.com.
Wagner himself is a rare breed. Most professional plant breeders draw a salary working for institutions that can support their work, such as universities, research centers or large seed companies.
Independent plant breeders can patent new varieties or apply for a certificate from the U.S. Department of Agriculture that gives them the exclusive right to market their creations in the U.S.
Wagner has done neither because he says the process is time-consuming and expensive.
His seed company online has a few thousand customers and doesn’t come close to supporting his research, although at least one company selling seeds for his tomatoes promised to give him royalties. They’ve also agreed to cover some of his expenses until the royalties come in.
Wagner can’t do this forever. He wants to keep his research alive. He wants funding. He wants help.
His ideas include a non-profit research farm where young people can learn to grow and save seeds.
Perhaps chefs could visit and taste new varieties of vegetables. He’s looking for someone who can work side-by-side with him.
“I could direct the research for a younger person, and be the absent minded professor.”