What started as a tomato rescue project — yes, you read that right — in 2015 is now an heirloom seed and plant business providing Missourians with unique tomatoes, peppers and herbs.
Laura Flacks-Narrol, owner of Victory Gardeners, began her heirloom adventure with a partner, well a tomato, called Ivan. The Ivan tomato is an heirloom native to Missouri that was in danger of disappearing before she launched a campaign that helped get the unique and hardy tomato’s seeds into the hands of Missouri farmers. One tomato rescue later and Victory Gardeners is selling around 118 different varieties of heirloom seeds and plants.
According to Flacks-Narrol, “When it comes to heirlooms, you can tell there’s a really big difference.” The main scientific difference, though, is that heirloom varieties are ones you can save the seeds from, and replant to get the same plant. Hybrids, which are what most store-variety seeds and plants are, aren’t able to produce the same plant the next year from their seeds, because they were a cross between two or more parent varieties to begin with. Why does it matter? “You can’t save those seeds and be seed independent in the future,” she says. “You have to go back to the manufacturer to create your mix.”
Historically, farmers would save seed from their crops each year to use the next planting season, without having to purchase any, something known as “seed independence.” However, one argument for hybrid varieties is that the new plant is unique and has great property traits, such as flood resistance, disease resistance, etc. that you couldn’t get with an heirloom. But, Flacks-Narrol has a counter to that.
“I use the concept of well-adjusted heirloom seeds,” she says. “If I continue to grow the same plant in the same microclimate, such as Missouri, with the diseases and types of soil here, the plant will adjust to the challenges and become stronger, or die out. When you can find the heirloom that adjusts, you’re better off than with a hybrid because you have a hardy seed and can be seed independent, it’s just a matter of trial and error.”
Seed independence has always been a strong argument for some farmers, but with the pandemic it’s become one for home growers as well. “During the pandemic, people started moving toward wanting to control their own food security,” Flacks-Narrol says. “Even if you stockpile hybrid seeds, you only get one year out of them versus an heirloom that will reproduce food for the rest of its life.”
But let’s get to the root of the issue: What your average gardener cares about perhaps the most is the quality of the produce. People have grown accustomed to the taste and texture of certain hybrids, such as the Sun Sugar tomato. “It’s a yellow cherry tomato that’s sweet, plentiful and hardy, but it is a hybrid seed. I found a tomato called the Egg Yolk with all of the same characteristics, but in an heirloom. The trick is to find the heirloom strand that gives you what you want our of your previously happy hybrid.”
Victory Gardeners is selling approximately 120 types of plants this year, and only two of them are hybrids. The two that Flacks-Narrol hasn’t been able to find heirloom substitutes for are the King Arthur Pepper and the Super Sweet 100 Tomato. “I haven’t found an heirloom cherry that does as well as the super sweet,” she says, “But I feel confident telling people the Egg Yolk is better than the Sun Sugar.”
Her hope is that over time people will begin replacing their hybrids with heirlooms that they feel grow and produce just as well. For now, her clientele are typically gardeners looking for something specially grown for flavor. “A lot of hybrids are grown for transferability and shelf life, not the flavor or texture.” Heirloom plants are more expensive because they are hand-grown, rather than in a factory setting, but for many customers, a unique tomato that is pink with a blush of black that’s organic and not treated with pesticides is worth it, she says.
You can purchase both seeds and plants from Victory Gardeners. Seeds are available year-round and plants typically become available starting April 1. At time of press, you could purchase plants and pick up from Victory Gardeners via drive-up, from the Columbia Farmers Market or enjoy free delivery for purchases over $30.
Flacks-Narrol suggests people pre-order online before heading to the farmers market because certain strands sell out quickly. This year, she has 55 pepper varieties, 57 tomato and 50 types of herbs.