Perspectives Online

College Profile -This Gardner grows tomatoes — and develops the varieties that growers want. By Dave Caldwell

Dr. Randy Gardner, CALS tomato breeder
Photo by Art LAtham

You may not know Randy Gardner, but if you’ve eaten a tomato purchased at a farmers’ market or roadside stand in the Eastern United States, there’s a better than even chance you’re familiar with his work.

Until June 30, when he retired, Gardner was the tomato breeder in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. He became the College’s tomato breeder on May 1, 1976.

For all of those 32 years, Gardner has worked in Fletcher just outside Asheville in western North Carolina, developing tomato varieties that taste and look good and are better able than other varieties to withstand the slings and arrows nature throws at a tomato in North Carolina. That’s all he’s ever wanted to do.

As Gardner says, “If you’re interested in something, and you’re into it, you need to stick with it. It’s like when I was growing up, they use to talk about the cat chewing on the grindstone — you stick with it, and you work at it.” It is indicative of Gardner’s tenure in Fletcher that he refers to the Mountain Horticultural Crops Research and Extension Center, which opened in 1987, as the “new building.”

Dr. Randy Gardner, CALS tomato breeder and professor of horticultural science, shows vine-ripe tomatoes he developed at the Mountain Horticultural Crops Research and Extension Center at Fletcher.
Photo by Dave Caldwell
Yet where Gardner is concerned, permanency has by no means led to complacency. By any measure, his breeding program has been remarkably successful. He released his first named variety, called Mountain Pride, in 1982, six years (a short span for traditional plant breeding) after taking the job.

Since then, he has released new varieties with regularity, 22 in all, along with 30 breeding lines. Other breeders are the primary consumers for breeding lines, which tend to manifest a particular characteristic but may not have the suite of attributes needed for commercial success.

All of the named varieties Gardner has released have been vine-ripe tomatoes, the kind of tomatoes sold at farmers’ markets or roadside stands, as distinguished from mature-green tomatoes that are harvested green so they may ripen and redden on the way to grocery store shelves.
Gardner developed vine-ripe tomatoes because that’s primarily what is grown in North Carolina. It is a continuing source of frustration to him that North Carolina is filled with vine-ripe tomatoes in the summer, yet few end up on grocery store shelves.

But it’s one thing to release a bunch of tomato varieties. It’s another to develop varieties that growers want. Gardner has done both.

“I’d say probably somewhere between 60 and 75 percent of the vine-ripe tomato production during the summer in the Eastern U.S. is from varieties that are from North Carolina,” he says. By “from North Carolina,” he means from Randy Gardner.

It is a mark of the success of Gardner’s program that most of his varieties have been licensed to seed companies, and royalties from seed sales have for some time funded his program, including the cost of a technician.

In a way, Gardner himself seems to have been bred to breed tomatoes in the North Carolina mountains. He grew up on a small farm on the Blue Ridge Plateau of Virginia, in Carroll County, just north of North Carolina’s Surry County.
‘Some people still say all this molecular work is going to replace traditional breeding, but it’s not turning out to be that way. What has happened is that the molecular work is a very good tool.’

“We grew tomatoes on our farm,” Gardner says. “We grew a lot of different crops. My dad only had 30 acres. We had a diversified operation. We grew our crops and hauled them down to Winston-Salem. That was the market for us. The reason we grew more tomatoes than anything else was that tomatoes was the only crop we could consistently make any money on. Tomatoes turned out to be our best cash crop. We grew three or four acres every year.”

He became interested in plant breeding as a boy working on the family farm.

“Growing up on the farm, we were always looking at new varieties of tomatoes that were coming out,” Gardner recalls. “Every year we’d try a few plants of a new variety that came out to see if there was anything better than what we were growing.”

Gardner, who has worked for 32 years in Fletcher, has released new tomato varieties with regularity – 22 in all, along with 30 breeding lines.
Photo by Art Latham
Gardner followed that interest to Virginia Tech, where he majored in horticulture and was a work-study student and technician for a fruit breeder who had been on the faculty at Cornell University. He was encouraged to apply for the doctoral program at Cornell, which he did, although at the time, few southerners attended Cornell.

It is apparent from Gardner’s speech that he is at home in the North Carolina mountains. As he says, “It’s sure not been any problem to relate to and talk to the people here. They’re very similar to the people where I grew up in Virginia, just a little further down the mountain.”

That was not the case in upstate New York.

“I didn’t figure this out for a while,” Gardner recalls. “People would talk to me up there just to hear me talk. It took me a while to figure out what was going on.”

Gardner finished his Ph.D. just as the North Carolina Tomato Growers Association was ending a successful effort to persuade the General Assembly to fund a tomato breeding position at North Carolina State University. Gardner was ready to return to the south. He was hired to breed tomatoes adapted to North Carolina conditions.

For 32 years, that’s what he’s done. The varieties he’s released tend to be attractive and flavorful, both important characteristics for roadside stand or farmers’ market sales. But many are also resistant to various diseases that attack tomatoes, an important consideration for growers.

Many carry the prefix Mountain in their names. Varieties called Mountain Spring, an early season variety, and Mountain Fresh, are among his most successful. Mountain Pride, Gardner’s first variety, is still used by many growers, finding favor recently among European growers.

Lately, Gardner has been breeding what he calls heirloom-type tomatoes. So-called heirloom tomatoes are older varieties that are no longer widely grown but often have distinctive flavor. Gardner is breeding tomatoes with the taste of heirloom tomatoes and disease resistance of more modern varieties, perfect for organic growers.

Like most traditional breeders, Gardner has strong opinions about molecular genetics, what is sometimes called genetic engineering, technology that allows gene-by-gene manipulation of the genome of an organism.

Gardner has embraced the use of molecular markers to determine whether a particular plant contains a particular gene. Molecular marker technology can speed up the breeding process substantially, he says. But like many traditional breeders, he’s still a bit suspicious of the hype that often accompanies molecular technology. Breeders who know what constitutes a good variety for growers and who know what’s involved in producing a crop are still a necessary part of the equation, Gardner argues.

“Some people still say all this molecular work is going to replace traditional breeding, but it’s not turning out to be that way. What has happened is that the molecular work is a very good tool,” says Gardner. “The problem has been this: A lot of people who know how to do all these molecular techniques, they don’t know what a tomato looks like.”

That is not the case, he is quick to add, for his replacement, Dr. Dilip Panthee, who is already working at the Mountain Horticultural Crops Research and Extension Center.

“What I’m hoping is that with all the experience with germplasm that I’ve got developed, if I continue to be associated with the program, we can take what I’ve developed and combine that with the molecular work and the capabilities that Dilip is bringing and make an even stronger program,” says Gardner.

“What I feel like I’ve really done during my career is I feel like I’ve developed materials that have laid a foundation for somebody else to come in and make as much or more headway as what I’ve been able to make,” he adds.

And Gardner intends to keep his hand in, as long as he doesn’t have to leave the mountains and can concentrate on breeding tomatoes.

“I don’t want to walk away,” he says. “I still have a lot of interest in (tomato breeding). I want to continue to work, will continue to be associated with the university program, as long as I don’t have to do any paperwork or go to Raleigh.”