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The tomato man

  • Brad Gates, the "Tomato Man" waters starts at his Calistoga greenhouse, Thursday April 17, 2014. (Kent Porter / Press Democrat) 2014

Brad Gates makes tomatoes like a master craftsman. Red with bleeding yellow stripes and vertical green bands that look like metallic paint. Tomatoes of indigo blue, tomatoes pretty in pink and yellow tomatoes splotched with green. All are infused with a splurge of flavor.

When supermarkets were still featuring big, uniformly round, red tomatoes that looked perfect but lacked personality, Gates was falling in love with the more homely fruit of the field — tomatoes that didn't look like tomatoes, "weird, non-red tomatoes" as he calls them, with odd shapes and creases.

And now his Wild Boar Farms tomatoes, varieties he developed himself over many years of selection and experimentation, are some of the best "must have" tomatoes around. Tomato lovers are grabbing them up in seeds and starts, varieties with names as strange as they look, like Large Barred Boar and Solar Flare.

Sebastopol's Larry Wagner won Best of Show at the 2011 Kendall-Jackson Heirloom Tomato Fest with Gates' richly sweet Pink Berkeley Tie Dye, a cross with Cherokee Purple that is earlier than Early Girl. Last year Wagner took the heaviest tomato prize with Gates' Pineapple Pig, a 1 pound 13 ounce bruiser. Other Wild Boar varieties took other honors.

"I'm the most famous poor guy I know," declares the man whose goal is to create "the most amazing varieties there are" that make people want to come "crawling back" for more.

Gates grows 20,000 starts in greenhouses in Calistoga and organically farms a fertile spring-fed acre and a half in St. Helena. He is one of only several small, leading independent hybridizers in Northern California — including Fred Hempel of Sunol and Gary Ibsen of Carmel — who are creating new "heirloom" varieties the old-fashioned way. Their fruit is visually intriguing, flavorful and open-pollinated, meaning you can save the seed with assurance that they will produce the same tomato.

They also are well-adapted to the Bay Area climate, which is particularly important in a drought year when there's no water to waste on mistakes or low-producers.

"It's wonderful to have a tomato breeder in your own neighborhood, because you know they're going to do well here," said Elaine Walter, who oversees the selection and growing of tomato starts for the Harvest for the Hungry garden's plant sale April 26 in Santa Rosa.

Wild Boar tomatoes, including the popular new blue tomatoes like Indigo Apple, Blue Beauty and Blue Berries, rich in healthy anthocyanins, are expected to go fast at the sale.

Last year Walter grew Wild Boar's Pork Chop, a true yellow with green stripes that ripen to gold.

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