ashland.news
May 23, 2024

Talent’s very own tomato turns 65, and there’s going to be a party

The Talent Tomato was propagated from a tomato plant that emerged from a field of Medford tomatoes in 1958. alent Historical Society photo
March 27, 2023

Talent Historical Society hosts celebration with music and memories Tuesday evening, March 28

By Morgan Rothborne, Rogue Valley Times

The Talent Tomato was born 65 years ago, and the Talent Historical Society is throwing a party to celebrate the anniversary and the man who helped make it possible.

The Talent Museum, 105 N. Market St., will host David James and his band — The James Consortium — at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, March 28, for an evening of music and memories.

James, reached by phone at his Applegate Valley residence, recalled the day he found the all-but-forgotten tomato seeds in a place where he least expected them.

“I was retiring. I was cleaning out my desk, and there was this little envelope of tomato seeds, and I thought, ‘My goodness,’” he said.

As soon as he saw them, he remembered a conversation 18 years earlier when he was given the seeds, and he remembered looking for them fruitlessly. Eventually, he gave up looking and assumed they were lost forever.

David James had a long career as a horticulturist. Talent Historical Society photo

“If I hadn’t taken everything out of that filing cabinet, I never would have found them,” he said.

James was looking back on a long career as a horticulturist. He founded the nonprofit Green Leaf Industries — to help people with disabilities work with plants — after leaving his previous career with the Oregon State University Extension Service. It was through OSU Extension that he was first acquainted with the now-famous tomato.

The Medford Tomato came first, he said, after OSU Extension developed it specifically for the Rogue Valley.

“Here in the valley, we get these long summers where you get a wave of heat at the end. Lot of times tomatoes would get sun scald and crack open. They (OSU) created a hybrid called the Medford Tomato that was a little bit more vigorous, little more foliage to protect the tomato,” he said.

In 1958, the Bagley Canning Company of Ashland created a demand for meaty local tomatoes. The Medford Tomato was in its heyday. At one of many abundant grows of this tomato, a worker for the cannery was inspecting plants when he noticed something, James said.

“Clarence Holdridge was his name. He was walking down the lines of tomatoes, looking for when to harvest ’em, I expect, and he musta noticed one plant. It had more vines, and more leaves than the others. He took the seeds home to his farm out on Wagner Creek in Talent and he sprouted ’em there,” he said.

The Talent Tomato was born.

After a brief surge of popularity, the tomato was almost lost forever after a change in local fortunes. The cannery closed, and demand for local tomatoes collapsed with it. The Medford Tomato was protected by its origins with OSU Extension, James explained, so they kept selling the seeds.

The Talent Museum at 105 N. Market Street will host David James and his band — The James Consortium — at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, March 28, for an evening of music and memories about the Talent Tomato.

But the Talent Tomato didn’t belong to anybody, and it was quietly forgotten … until James found the 18-year-old bag of seeds. Despite being well beyond the normal shelf life of seeds and kept at no protective temperature in their hiding place, he tried to grow them.

“There were about 40 seeds. About 20 germinated,” he said.

Six were nursed into plants by James to save more seeds of the resurrected tomato. Other plants were given away to friends. He never thought much about his part in saving the tomato from extinction until he chanced upon an exhibit honoring the tomato at the Talent Museum.

“I happened to go in there, and it kind of shocks you (to) see your own face like that,” he said of photos featuring him in the exhibit.

The museum has sold the tomato plants and T-shirts memorializing the tomato for years as a fundraiser. James was content to know by extension his work was able to help support the museum.

For the event Tuesday, James said he looked forward to reveling in not only the tomato’s silver anniversary, but an opportunity to share his lifelong passion for folk music.

His band will perform all original music composed in the American folk tradition of Bob Dylan and Woodie Guthrie.

“Cuz’ I’m an old guy,” he said.

Reach reporter Morgan Rothborne at mrothborne@rv-times.com. This story first appeared in the Rogue Valley Times.

Picture of Bert Etling

Bert Etling

Bert Etling is the executive editor of Ashland.news. Email him at betling@ashland.news.

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