As the sun shone brightly in Hollister on Sept. 21, husband and wife team Gary Ibsen and Dagma Lacey meandered through buckets of colorful heirloom tomatoes. Passionate about organic farming, the couple has made it their mission to share their love of tomatoes while protecting the history and integrity of each type gathered from around the world through their company TomatoFest.
What started out as growing 10 types of heirloom tomatoes for sale in Carmel Valley and Monterey Bay area grocery stores and restaurants ripened into a business with a seed library of 650 different varieties.
“We have a precious collection,” Ibsen said. “We are protecting the legacy of the foods, the flavors and the history that comes with each.”
Though the couple lives in Mendocino County, both call Hollister a “second home” as all tomatoes are grown and harvested in Hollister alongside growing partner Castro Farms.
Harvesting by morning and extracting seeds every afternoon at an offsite location during harvest season, Lacey described gathering seeds as being similar to “panning for gold.”
Some of the tomatoes grown to harvest for seeds include Black Cherry, Amana Orange, Chocolate Stripes, and Julia Child, named after the well-known chef who was Ibsen’s friend.
Part of TomatoFest’s seed library includes 65 varieties of dwarf tomatoes.
“Most people don’t have the room to grow an eight-foot plant,” Ibsen said. “Dwarf plants allow people to grow tomatoes on porches and rooftops.”
While the couple’s seed library is a collection from around the world, all harvested tomatoes are locally grown and processed in Hollister. Lacey and Ibsen are active in every aspect of their business, and harvest the fruit by hand.
“We follow it from seed to seedling to watching it grow up,” Ibsen said. “We have progressed from doing it one tomato at a time to now producing millions of seeds.”
What inspired Ibsen and Lacey to keep a close connection with so many tomato varieties?
“It’s about keeping these seeds alive,” Lacey said. “I say, ‘Gary you don’t know what table this tomato ends up on.’”
Ibsen said, “We wanted to share the history and quality of these tomatoes.”
Part of sharing their variety and love of heirloom tomatoes came with the couple’s participation in the Carmel TomatoFest, a one-day event started by Isben in 1997.
Lacey would not become involved in the event and company until 1999 after meeting Ibsen at a year end workshop/retreat at Asilomar in Pacific Grove in 1998.
On the Carmel TomatoFest, Ibsen said the event drew crowds of more than 3,000 people and had sponsorships from organizations including Sunset Magazine.
Today, the couple’s main focus is producing seeds that can be sold and given to charitable organizations. To do this, Ibsen and Lacey give away about 90% of what they grow to charities, urban and community gardens, youth camps, and school gardens.
“We try to share this legacy with as many people as possible,” Ibsen said. “As we say, ‘Every seed a possibility.’”