DECORAH — The Seed Savers Exchange evaluation plot is to tomato lovers what Willy Wonka’s factory is to chocoholics.
On a sunny ridge north of Decorah, tomatoes hang heavy on the vines. Every shade in the tomato palate — brilliant red, dusty pink, orange and variegated — is represented, as are sizes from Roma-like to fruits as big as two fists.
Steffen Mirsky, assistant curator at Seed Savers, already has evaluated these tomatoes, which includes measuring, weighing and testing for acidity, sweetness and appearance. Evaluation lets curators know which varieties should be preserved in seed form for future generations to enjoy.
That’s Seed Savers’ mission — conserving and promoting culturally-diverse fruits and vegetables by collecting, growing and sharing heirloom seeds and plants. Staff grow these plants at the Heritage Farm and back up the collection at the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, in Norway, to ensure the varieties don’t disappear.
“We want to preserve the biodiversity we have,” Mirsky said. Seed Savers has about 6,000 tomato varieties in its collection and is growing about 50 varieties this season.
Mirsky pulls a red-and-yellow striped fruit off the vine and cracks it open with his thumb. Not a lot of meat inside the Striped Cavern, but it looks great in a garden, he said. Another tomato, the Red Peach, has a lightly-fuzzed surface.
Tomato varieties in the evaluation plot are alternated with green beans because both must be staked and both tend to sprawl, so alternating crops keeps one tomato strain from blending with another, Mirsky said. It hasn’t been a great growing year for the tomato crop — a blight has kept the plants from optimal growth and wild turkeys have found their way into the gardens, despite an electrified barrier, he said.
Even an off-year for Seed Savers yields thousands of tomatoes begging to be eaten.
Seed Savers will host a free public tasting of 30 to 45 varieties of open-pollinated heirloom tomatoes on Sept. 1. The tomatoes available for sampling will be in the categories of snacking, slicing and paste or sauce, said Jeanine Scheffert, events and volunteer coordinator.
“For the sauce, we have a sauce recipe we’ll make,” Scheffert said. “We use the same recipe for each variety, but they will taste significantly different (depending on the tomato).”
The tasting is from 1-4 p.m., with hayrack rides from noon to 5 p.m. There also will be a salsa contest (contestants must register in advance), demonstrations of how to save seeds and preserve tomatoes and a Q&A on growing tomatoes.
What: Tomato tasting
When: Sept. 1, 1 to 4 p.m.
Where: Decorah Seed Savers Exchange, 3094 N. Winn Rd., Decorah
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