September 2021
Local Food
Chef Molly Beverly

The Prescott Tomato Story

Several years ago I stumbled on an interesting listing in the Native Seeds-Search catalog: “Prescott Heritage Tomato. Given to Native Seeds by a member of a family that had grown this variety for many generations in Prescott AZ.”

My mind’s eye pictured the old Prescott, dirt roads and small cabins with homestead gardens over-spilling with prized tomato vines. I fantasized that generations of seed-saving gardeners had selected a tomato perfectly adjusted to our place on earth. I wanted to taste it. I wanted this tomato.

I ordered seed, which germinated quickly, grew rapidly, and produced nice fruit early and abundantly, right up to frost. The tomatoes surprised me. They were smallish but definitely not cherry tomatoes. They had a lot of characteristics of plum tomatoes, with dense flesh and no belly-button core. And they ripened well, sitting on the counter, resisting rot and mold. They were substantial and pulpy enough to make a rich tomato sauce. Best of all, they were not too sweet or too sour, extraordinarily balanced, and actually fulsome delicious. That first season we enjoyed Prescott tomatoes fresh, dried, sauced, and canned.

Alas, the next time I checked, Prescott tomatoes were no longer listed in Native Seeds-Search offerings. A search brought me to only one company, Tomato fest in Carmel, California. That's when I decided that this tomato has to come home, back to Prescott. I took this on as a challenge.

Tomato fest ( owner Gary Lloyd Ibsen generously donated hundreds of seeds in 2018 and 2019 to be distributed at local seed-exchange events. Over the pandemic year I put in 20plants and distributed the seeds freely. Seeds and plants went out to Slow Food gardeners, the Farmer's Market seed exchange and the Public Library seed bank.

I wanted to learn more. I called Native Seeds-Search and asked, “Who brought these seeds in? When? What's the backstory?” The answer was “Sorry, they were dropped off by someone from Prescott, but we have no other record. We just don't know.”

Meanwhile, Native Seeds-Search needed someone in the Prescott area to grow seed for their collection. Of course I volunteered. For the 2021 season I planted exclusively Prescott  tomatoes and no other variety so they wouldn’t cross-pollinate. I planned to save seed, replenish the Native Seeds-Search stock, and distribute seed and tomatoes (with seed-saving instructions) to all of Prescott.

Native Seeds-Search sent me 400 seeds that were last grown in 2011, with a tested germination rate of only 24%. I planted them all in flats. After a week a few tomato sprouts came up. As they grew, I transplanted them into cups. Six weeks later they were still coming up. By that time the first emergent tomatoes were ready to go into the garden I had the 80 plants I needed and 80 more to give away.

That's how I wound up at the Farmer's Market on a mid-May Saturday morning with trays of Prescott tomato plants. And that's when I ran into my longtime friend, Prescott native Janet Markham. 

“How would you like a Prescott Tomato plant?” I asked.

“Oh,” Janet said, “are those the tomatoes that John Hays grew for years? The little rosy plum tomatoes that grow so vigorously and reseed themselves everywhere?”

“Is that the John Hays, former Arizona state senator, of the historic Hays Ranch in Peeples Valley?” I asked.

“Yes, yes, that's right.”

I say, “Can you put me in touch?”

Janet told me, “I’m meeting his daughter in an hour, I'll get you her number.”

State Senator John Upton Hays died in 2016 at the age of 88. His daughter, Becky Hays Rovey, still lives on the family ranch (established in 1912) and keeps his garden.

So I took the drive to Peeples Valley and met Becky. She talked about how her father loved this tomato, grew it for 50years, saved seed and distributed plants to friends. He wanted to share and preserve this unusual variety, so probably was the one who took it to Native Seeds-Search. “That's the kind of thing he would do,” she said. As I talked with Becky, more story unfolded.

“Where did the seed come from?” I ask.

Becky pulled out a repurposed plastic medicine bottle, labeled and filled with tomato seeds, and explained, “Dr. Brailler of Wickenburg developed these tomatoes and many other plants for our arid environment. He was the first medical doctor in Wickenburg and a good friend of my dad's.”

I plan to follow the trail of tomato seeds to Wickenburg to learn more about Dr. Brailler. Stay tuned.

You can purchase and taste Prescott tomatoes this season from the Schaffer Farm booth at the Prescott Farmer's Market. Watch for them there at seed-saving events too. Next spring you'll be able to find Prescott tomato seeds at Farmer's Market seed distributions and in the library’s seed library. Native Seeds-Search should also have seed for their spring 2022 catalog listing.

Let's bring these tomatoes back to every Prescott garden and farm, home to our kitchens and plates, and celebrate the past, enjoy the present and pass Prescott tomatoes on to the future. And let's send our gratitude to John Hays for passing them on to us.

Photo by Gary Beverly

“Native Seeds-Search is a nonprofit seed conservation organization based in Tucson, Arizona. Our mission is to conserve and promote the arid-adapted crop diversity of the Southwest in support of sustainable farming and food security. Native Seeds-Search seeks to find, protect and preserve the seeds of the people of the Greater Southwest so that these arid adapted crops may benefit all peoples and nourish a changing world.”

How to Save Tomato Seeds

1.    Usefully ripe, mature tomatoes

2.    Cut them in half around the center (equator). Have a bowl ready. Using your fingers, tease out the seeds and the watery pocket around them. Save the rest of the tomato for eating. I buzz them up in the blender as a base for sauce.

3.    Pour the watery, seedy mixture into a glass jar. Add 1/4 cup water for every cup of seed mixture. Cover lightly.

4.    Allow the mixture to ferment for a few days. It might develop a covering of white mold.  This process dissolves the gelatinous seed coat and destroys seed-borne viruses

5.    Add more water and slowly pour off any floating seeds (which are sterile).  Again fill the jar with water and slowly decant. Viable seeds sink to the bottom. Repeat this process until the water is clear.

6.    Pour these seeds and water into a kitchen strainer and rinse under running water.

7.    Spread the seeds on a coffee filter, paper plate or parchment paper to dry.

8.    Allow to dry fully, for 2-4 weeks.  Seeds are fully dry if they easily crack in half when bent.

9.    Store in sealed, labeled glass jar in a cool dark place.

Chef Molly Beverly is Prescott's leading creative food activist and teacher. Photos by Gary Beverly.