Look no further than a suburban garden in Columbia, Missouri for the "Florence Nightingale" of rare and endangered seeds. Laura Flacks-Narrol, founder of the Victory Gardeners and their Ivan Tomato Project, has built her life around saving rare, endangered and nearly extinct varieties of tomatoes and vegetables, “When an 89 year old woman from New York State sends you her dying tomato varieties to rescue, how could you say no? It makes it worth all the effort.”
So why is it so important to save varieties like the Ivan tomato from extinction? The Ivan tomato plant is a powerhouse variety producing up to 50 pounds of tomatoes per plant. It’s extremely prolific, easy to grow, great for cooking, has a lovely acidity, resistant to pests and grows incredibly well in Missouri’s micro-climate. What’s not to love?
Furthermore, the Ivan tomatoes roots run deep in the Columbia Farmers Market community. The Ivan tomato is a Schuerenberg family heirloom fruit with ties to Ashland, Missouri. When Jerry Schuerenberg, a founding member of the Columbia’s Farmers Market and a Vietnam War veteran, had a stroke, gardening became a form of therapy for him. Once his daughters noticed the health benefits of his gardening practices, they decided to build him a greenhouse. From this greenhouse, the Heartland Family Nursery was born, which was a longstanding vendor at the Columbia Farmers Market.
Many years later in 2015, after Jerry’s passing, Laura found herself with the last seeds of the Ivan Tomato in her hands. She was determined to save the tomato. She reached out to Becky Whitworth, the daughter of the Ivan tomato family to partner in the Ivan Tomato Rescue Project in hopes of saving the cultivar. With the help of many friends and family members over the last 5 years, the Ivan tomato is now grown all over the country.
After the success of the Ivan tomato, Laura and her family have focused on growing a company called Victory Gardeners that focuses on saving plants just like the Ivan tomato. Thanks to the hard work of Laura and her team, the grassroots organization reaches a global audience, reaching the four corners of the globe. Central to their mission is a commitment to encourage therapeutic gardening practices amongst veterans and within the community.
From the backyards of Columbia, Missouri, Laura and the rest of the Victory Gardeners team sends rare and nearly extinct seeds all over the world, “My journey is successful through our online sales. I sell the majority of my seeds online. By doing so, it amplifies the effect of rescues all over the world and changes the concept of local. I’ve sold Ivan tomato seeds to customers in every single state in the nation, to Egypt, to Ireland, Canada and all over Europe! If you want to be a successful farmer in this world, you have to think beyond your backyard.”
Even a novice backyard gardener can become a successful farmer when using the Victory Gardeners seeds and plants. Customers should expect to produce yields large enough to feed entire families, friends and neighbors from the abundance of just one small but mighty garden. Laura is always pleased by the results her customers experience,
"People come to my booth all the time and tell me how great their yields were. It makes it worth all the hard work! When I started as a gardener 23 years ago, I was also a total novice. I learned by trial and error. Once I found the Ivan tomato, it considerably changed my thinking, ‘Maybe I AM a farmer’… My eyes were then opened to locally adjusted strains like Ivan tomatoes."
According to Laura, “When using my seeds, under the right soil heath and conditions, gardeners are able to accomplish massive yields. To help these seeds along, soil health is the most important thing you can do. You need a mature living soil in order to produce the maximum amount of produce from one plant. You can accomplish this with companion gardening.”
Therefore, Laura sells numerous herbs and vegetables to accompany the Ivan tomato, “I grow my tomato plants in cinder blocks. In the holes between the cinder blocks, I’ll plant my herbs. Pollinators are attracted to the herbs, so they pollinate my tomato plants as well, which increases my yields. The pollinators help bring in predators to eat the bad bugs that might be eating my plants. That’s why I always plant milkweed in my garden, because the birds eat ALL the bugs, as well as the bad bugs. So, by planting the milkweed, it restores balance to the garden. I’m creating a healthy ecosystem, which supports a good healthy yield. I encourage gardeners to think beyond just the food you want to eat and include flowers like milkweed, as well as native flowers amongst your tomato and vegetable plants. Consider the full eco-system rather than a few plants. You’ll double or triple your yields. This companion gardening makes our products pesticide free, as we don’t need to spray to keep the bugs away. The bugs take care of themselves!”
If you weren’t convinced of the Victory Gardeners commitment to gardening and rare vegetables yet, after learning the process of how a tomato becomes a seed, you’ll be hooked:
"The first step to saving a rare seed is germinating plants from seeds in my kitchen window. After the plants have matured, I collect the ripe tomatoes from the vine. Then I cut off the top, pull all the seeds and juice out and store in mason jars in a dark garage. You let the seeds and juice sit covered, for about 5 to 6 days. It will produce a nice head of mold on the top of the jar. Tomato seeds have a slimy membrane that must be consumed by bacteria in order to germinate. Therefore, once the slimy seed membrane is eaten by the bacteria, you can strain the seeds and wash them well. After taking careful consideration to label the seeds, you put them back into the dark for another week. This allows the seeds to dry. Once you collect the seeds, you conduct a germination test to see if the previous steps you took were successful. If a large portion of the seeds successfully germinate, you put the rest of the seeds back into the darkness. Afterwards, another germination test is conducted. I will do this for each of the varieties I sell. It’s not an easy task. I’ll cultivate anywhere from 4,000 to 6,000 seedlings in one year in this manner."
Every year Laura decides to bring different seeds and products to the market depending on what her customers have asked her to grow and what was a prolific grower the previous year, “My booth reflects my commitment to use what I have from the previous year. Whether that’s herbs, an abundance of peppers for making my pepper jellies, blended teas, my herbal ointments, lotions or lip balms, I create eclectic products based on what I grow from year to year with a mindfulness not to waste any product from my garden.”
She encourages her customers to be mindful of the new value added products available each week and to stop by her both to discover the new and exciting products she has to offer, “New value added products are always being produced week to week. Anything I can access from my garden, I try to make a product to bring to the market. I write about this journey in my blog, ‘Food Not Bought’ wherein I share my mission of using what you grow. Nothing should go to waste.”
One of the most popular items from her garden is the Becky Butter. Becky Butter contains many medicinal herbs that are each known for their therapeutic properties. The herbs in the cream have been found useful to individuals with inflammation, burns, eczema and dry skin. Laura explains, “We start with raw herbs and oils and cook it down and remove all the organic materials. We make it to the same secret recipe keeping as consistent as possible with natural ingredients. We make it ourselves from the dried herbs and oils. We then jar and label by hand. There are no chemicals used in our products. The only preservative we use is high quality Vitamin E Oil. A Jar of Becky Butter has a minimum of a 6 month shelf life. Becky Butter is called an Ointment because it is meant to be rubbed into joins and skin. As you use it you realize It begs to be rubbed in. It goes on a little oily but soaks in really quickly leaving a protected layer of beeswax.”
When asked what products she enjoys selling the most out of her array of items she recalls her years growing up in Toronto, “There’s something just so civilized and warming about a cup of tea. I’ve always enjoyed blending teas from herbs I’ve grown in my garden. Drinking tea allows for a calming moment to relax when you’ve had a hard day. When I sell someone a bag of tea, I know they will have a chill moment in their day and a moment to forget about the hectic world we live in.”
Laura also enjoys selling transplants to customers in the spring and early summer months, “I love knowing my little plants will produce food for my customers, as well as the therapeutic value of growing your own food.”
Laura loves selling at the market because, “It’s just such a great outlet to reach my target audience. The folks who attend the market are connected to nature, they understand why it’s important to buy products without pesticides, they practice sustainability and are mindful about where their food comes from. They understand my commitment to natural growing techniques and heirloom varieties.”
Everyone is welcome to participate and volunteer for the Victory Gardeners and their Ivan Tomato Project, but only serious volunteers need apply, “We always need volunteers, especially on transplant days. Whether you have experience on a farm or not, there’s always a way for folks to help out the project. We have ‘Seed Nights’ and count 28 dried seeds into packages to sell at the market and worldwide. Then labels have to be printed and placed on packages. It’s a lot of work. There’s always something that needs to be done.”
The compassion and hard work rooted in the Ivan Tomato Project mirrors Laura’s compassion and hard work for her community, “The work we do with veterans is really important to me. We work closely with the Welcome Home Organization. They provide a home and resources for homeless veterans. We donate food to the organization, as well as invite veterans to experience the therapeutic benefits of working with your hands in the garden. In this business there has to be giving. I don’t want a single plant to go to waste. After two years of doing this, no plants have gone to waste because we donate to schools, pantries, homeless shelters and so much more. It’s important to give to your community. It’s a circle. We would actually love to partner with more organizations. We look forward to continuing to teach the importance of gardening, donating to our community and growing the plants people can’t find anymore. We want to be known as an organization who donates and supports the knowledge of ethnic and local varieties of vegetables and plants. We encourage anyone who is interested to reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also support our cause by visiting our website, victorygardeners.com for more information about our products. We encourage you to share our page with friends and family who might be interested in saving rare vegetables like Ivan.”
Whether you’re growing your knowledge of backyard gardening, interested in the therapeutic benefits of gardening or enjoy growing rare and nearly extinct heirloom varieties, visit the Victory Gardeners for more than just your seeds. Visit Laura’s booth to discover how to engage in your own personal growth and the growth of others in our community.