By: Dick Tracy, Sacramento Bee Garden Writer
Even as a child, Joe Howland got a kick out of growing tomatoes. In fact, his gardening skills won him acclaim as a 10-year-old when he was a 4-H Club member.
But later in life, when he and his wife Mary Ann moved to Reno, he found that local gardeners were very familiar with recipes for green tomatoes. In that high desert community, where temperatures often fluctuate 50 degrees in a day, tomato plants do a lot of starting and stopping before the fruit has a chance to ripen.
Thus Howland, chairman of Pan American Seed and a member of the board of directors for Southern California-based PetoSeed Co., the world's largest supplier of tomato seed for agriculture, had a hybridizing mission in mind.
"In the early '70s, I told the people at PetoSeed that I wanted them to breed a short-season tomato that would mature in my garden in Reno," he says. "But they really weren't interested, even though I was the guy who had control of funding for the breeding department!"
The arguments were that the seed company didn't deal directly with home gardeners, where sales might only amount to 100 pounds in a year. PetoSeed targeted the farm market, where it could sell seed by the ton. And the types of machine-harvested tomatoes it specialized in were as tough as tennis balls, intentionally designed that way for transport and processing.
And those tomatoes were nearly tasteless when harvested - the reason being that they were used for such things as ketchup and sauces in which the flavor is added so that every bottle had a uniform taste.
Even Howland's arguments that he knew there were hundreds of areas throughout the country that would welcome a short-season tomato fell on deaf ears.
Deflated, but not defeated, Howland kept his eye on the home tomato market. One day in a conversation with Pan American Seed plant breeder Dr. Tilly Holtrup (now with Goldsmith Seeds in Gilroy), he told her, "I'd like to see a hanging basket tomato plant. Do you think you could develop one?"
Holtrop accepted the challenge. Within a relatively short time, she produced the hanging basket plant he wanted. And when the small-fruited plant, called "Tumbling Tom," was offered to the public, the novelty item was a big success.
"Retailers were paying $600 a pound for seed," says the 80-year-old Howland, now a professor emeritus of horticulture and journalism at the University of Nevada, "and the most our people ever got for their commercial hybrids was between $100 to $125 a pound. Suddenly, I had their interest."
In 1974, Howland got word that a tomato had been bred that would keep growing even when temperatures dropped to 40 degrees, and it had tasty and attractive fruit: "they said, "We've got that short-season tomato you want.'"
Howland learned that the tomato had been developed by a hybridizer in France whose company struck a deal with the Americans. (That company, too, was seeking high-quality processing tomatoes, and considered this one a failure because it was too fragile for shipping.)
When seedsmen at W. Atlee Burpee got word of the new plant, which Howland had named "Early Girl" (to complement Burpee's already successful "Better Boy" variety), the seed catalog cut a three-year deal with PetoSeed for exclusive rights to seed for the new tomato and featured it on the cover of its 1975 spring catalog.
"It was the first time in the history of the company that they featured a tomato on the cover that wasn't developed and owned by Burpee," Howland says. "Sales went through the roof. They could hardly keep up with the orders."
And a French company was getting an enormous amount of royalties.
Mindful of this cash flow, American hybridizers quickly got to work to breed their own tomato, nearly identical in taste and growth habit. And they then supplied the seed for what has become one of America's most popular home garden tomatoes for the past 25 years.
There have been modifications made on the original tomato, including "Early Girl VFF hybrid," a slicing tomato, and "Bush Early Girl VFFNT Hybrid," with greater disease resistance and larger fruits, that ripen within four days of Early Girl on a bush-type plant 18 inches tall.
"Early Girl Bush Hybrid is very dwarf and compact for small space gardening and large containers," says George Ball, chairman and chief executive officer of W. Atlee Burpee Co., "and it really hits a niche market for gardeners who live in town houses and garden in containers. It's virtually a fully bushed version of Early Girl."
Ball says Early Girl is still among the top five tomatoes his company offers.
The reason for Early Girl's continued success, when most tomato varieties seldom capture the spotlight for more than four or five years, was explained by Howland in an interview last year with Sunset Magazine, whose readers had voted Early Girl their favorite then as they had in a similar poll four years earlier: "It's a remarkable tomato," he said. "It's a good size (about 4 to 6 ounces), a nice shape, a good-looking red outside and very red inside, and dependable."
You can add that it has a rich, "tomatoey" flavor and sets fruit in about 51 days, even when nighttime temperatures slide down to 40 degrees then hit 90 degrees or higher the following day.
And, as Howland reports with a smile, "Garden centers here in Reno sell out of Early Girl within hours of delivery."
The genesis of the Early Girl tomato started in the early '70s when Joe Howland, then a board member of PetoSeed, said he wanted the company to breed a "short-season tomato that would mature in my garden in Reno." Surprisingly, he found little interest.