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Post 82

A story about growing better tomatoes with genetic selection and other farming hacks

14-Aug-2013

This is a seasonal post about my grandfather's story and his relentless efforts to produce better tomatoes during his whole farming-labor activity. His goal is focused on manual genetic selection. My grandfather is a farming hacker, he doesn't know what this means, but I admire what he has always done. He has conducted this selection process over more than forty years, and now I have tomato seeds that develop into the sweetest tomatoes ever. I have now taken his token and continue his magical deed at a smaller scale, though.

The whole process begins with sowing some tomato seeds in pots by the end of January, watering them about three times a week (constant humidity is important for germination) while keeping them in a warm place (indoors). By early March all plants should have sticked out of the turf and should keep growing until May, a time when they shall be replanted to a bigger piece of land, preferably a vegetable garden. Flowers should follow, pollination is automatic as the flowers are bisexual, and the red fruits culminate the cycle. At this point, all is set for some human intervention (otherwise nature tends to maximum entropy by growing a little bit of everything). Only the seeds from the best tomatoes (i.e., the ones with adequate size, intense rosy color, well-rounded shape, firm touch, delicate smell, sweet taste, ...) must be released from the pulp to be dried under the sun and to be safely stored for the next season (next year's summer). A good way to do it is by smashing the selected tomatoes, and leaving them in a jar with some water for 8-10 days so that the pulp rots releasing the seeds, which, by density, settle at the bottom of the container. This is an old farmer's advice for having excellent seeds. Then, by repeating this process over many years, the genetic content of selected ones is such that the resulting tomatoes have no equal in the market.

image

The only setback of this variety of tomatoes, which we call "pink-colored tomatoes" (see picture), is that the plants do not produce as many tomatoes (or pounds of tomatoes) as other hybridized varieties like bodar, for example. This is why the pink ones are rarely seen on the shelves of the grocer's. Nonetheless, many farmers I know do still cultivate some of them for personal delight in addition to the rest of the varieties for trading. However, the commercial viability of my grandfather's forgotten tomatoes is yet unknown. I can't presently afford to spend much on them so as to iterate them with the consumers, or with other producers (there is a lovely community of farmers on the outskirts of Barcelona that I see every day during my commute). I just grow a couple of plants at the roof of my house to maintain the wonderful seeds that my grandfather cared to select for such as long time. As a research engineer, I will definitely continue the manual selection process of tomato seeds, and measure as many variables as I can to quantitatively model and analyze the process. In the end, as Burrell Smith (designer of the Mac computer) put it at a hacker conference, hacking has to do with careful craftsmanship, and this is not limited to tinkering with high tech. In fact, there are already other personalities in this field with many interesting ideas in this regard. One of them is John Seymour. From his books I learned to revitalize plants with fermented nettle broth, to kill caterpillars with tobacco infusions, and to eliminate greenflies with basil and ladybugs. By applying these natural techniques I contribute to the enchanting and miraculous process of tomato improvement with ecologically-friendly methods free from pernicious chemicals. This is not a matter of fashion, we are what we eat, and fortunately more and more people nowadays adhere to hacking for a better food system beyond growing vegetables.



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