Meet the folks trying to change
the world one tomato at a time
Photo by Carole Topalian
The World Tomato Society’s Cynthia Sandberg and Bud Michael.
Photo by Deborah Luhrman
BY DEBORAH LUHRMAN
PHOTOGRAPHY BY DEBORAH LUHRMAN AND CAROLE TOPALIAN
Farmer Cynthia Sandberg barely noticed the first time realtor Helen Pastorino came to one of her gardening classes at Love Apple Farms in the Santa Cruz Mountains and offered to sit down and talk business. “Sometimes you’ve got to hit me over the head with a two-by-four to get me to pay attention,” she admits.
But then Pastorino took another class and persisted.
“I realized that this was a really high-powered businesswoman, and we entered into a relationship where she became my mentor,” says Sandberg. “She’s just vastly more experienced in business than I am and a lot more successful.”
So the teacher became the student, with Pastorino—who founded the Los Gatos-based Alain Pinel and Pertria real estate groups—guiding Sandberg toward her dream of creating a community of tomato lovers in the World Tomato Society.
WTS was actually launched two years ago, but Sandberg was busy growing gourmet vegetables for David Kinch’s Michelin-starred Manresa restaurant, and the project needed a reboot.
In January, tech entrepreneur Bud Michael was brought on board as the society’s CEO and in March Sandberg ended her partnership with Manresa to devote more time to the tomato society. She and Michael have also joined forces with Gary Ibsen and his wife Dagma Lacey, who run the TomatoFest seed company and from 1990 to 2008 organized the popular Carmel TomatoFest.
“I did a bunch of research and found tomatoes are a huge industry,” says Michael, who at first was apprehensive about the business potential. “It’s a $21 billion-a-year industry and millions of people are passionate about tomatoes, but nobody’s really organized the world of tomatoes.
“I thought about how Etsy and Craftsy and even Pinterest when they began were all affinity groups, started around a particular theme of interest,” he says.
Cooking and gardening are the top two hobbies in the United States and tomatoes, although technically a fruit, are considered the most widely grown vegetable. So the ingredients are there for a successful society that brings together growers, gardeners, nutritionists, chefs, home cooks and eaters from around the globe.
“The tomato crosses all boundaries and cuisines and all socioeconomic boundaries as well,” says Sandberg, who has been growing tomatoes “passionately” for the past 20 years and holds an annual tomato plant sale every spring in Scotts Valley.
“When home gardeners start a vegetable patch, tomatoes are their number one most desired thing to grow, because the difference in flavor between a homegrown tomato and a store-bought tomato is so significant,” she adds.
The World Tomato Society is set to blossom into a virtual online community packed with tutorials and videos on growing and cooking with tomatoes, sustainable living, health research and an encyclopedic catalog of all known tomato varieties.
Award-winning Monterey graphic designer Jerry Takigawa has been tapped to create the new WTS website.
Ibsen is charged with fleshing out and expanding the catalog, which currently includes 5,800 tomato varieties with color photos and is being converted into a database that allows users to search for the exact color, shape, size and growing profile they want. Most content is available only to members of the World Tomato Society, but membership is free with registration.
“It’s painstaking work, but I enjoy it all,” says Ibsen. “I’m in touch with almost all the international seed companies and with individual families who have been holding on to their heirloom seeds for generations and want to share them with the world.
“I love it because I’m always learning about plant history, family history and cultural history. The stories are just as important as the fruit itself,” he adds.
And bringing back Ibsen’s TomatoFest is certainly in the cards.
“It was magical, it was awesome,” recalls Sandberg. “People really want him to bring it back. Now, through the WTS he’ll have help doing it.”
The collaborators are aiming to revive TomatoFest in 2017 and the first reiteration will likely take place in Los Gatos, where the WTS headquarters has been set up in Pastorino’s office building. Later, they hope to establish tomato festivals in cities around the world.
Back at Love Apple Farms, Sandberg is overseeing the research arm of the society, pursuing such projects as debunking myths about tomato gimmicks that she says do not work, like the topsy-turvy tomato plant, the tomato tree and ketchup and fries—a tomato-potato plant combo.
She will also conduct tomato trials and work on starting a seed bank to preserve heirloom varieties.
Michael is forging a variety of partnerships to gain financial stability and credibility. Among the first partners are Enza Zaden, the Dutch seed company with U.S. headquarters in Salinas, the Tomato Foundation of Barcelona, Spain and the Demeter Association for biodynamic certification.
“Our short-term objective is to let people know we’re here, build a membership, add content and build up the World Tomato Society brand,” he says. “But the ultimate goal is to create a credible voice so that we can really advance the cause of sustainable living. There are lots of ways to go with this, but it all starts with the tomato.”
Deborah Luhrman is deputy editor of Edible Monterey Bay and editor of our weekly newsletter. A lifelong journalist, she has reported from around the globe, but now prefers covering our flourishing local food scene and growing her own tomatoes in the Santa Cruz Mountains.