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Stories and Seeds: Heirloom Tomatoes

Written by Joe Ulrich, Arts & Culture Desk and WITF Host | Aug 6, 2014 10:18 AM

What's the story behind your food?

The Master Gardeners at Penn State Extension in Franklin County know their stories and they're helping to tell them to others who are interested in heirloom plants and specifically tomatoes. 

What is an heirloom?

Brandywine Tomato

Photo by

Brandywine Tomato

"It's an open pollinated plant," says Carol Kagan, the Master Garden Coordinator for the Master Gardener Program. "That means that if you collect the seeds from this plant and you plant them that you will get this plant. If you do that with a hybrid, you don't know what you're going to get. You could get one of any of the plants that were used to create that plant."


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'Arbuznyi' Tomato

Many of the heirloom tomatoes are named after stories, places and people who grew them decades or even centuries ago. Mortgage Lifter tomatoes are named after a man who had a radiator business and also grew tomatoes that everyone loved. He then sold the plants and was able to pay off his mortgage. Amish Paste is a local variety from the Amish community that's great for pastes and sauces. Cherokee Purple is linked to the Cherokee Nation. The list goes on.

Plant diversity is also another reason heirlooms are growing in popularity and serve a purpose. "We need to make sure that we're not relying on one or two or three different kinds of varieties and jeopardizing our food source," says Kagan.


Photo by is an organization in Decorah, Iowa that collects and shares various heirloom plants. Part of their mission is to preserve a diversity of vegetables.

The Master Gardeners will be hosting their Tomato Tasting Day on Saturday, August 23rd from 10-2pm at the Franklin County Ag Center in Chambersburg. Attendees get to do a blind taste-testing and rate their favorite tomatoes.

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