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Setting Free the Urban Tomato

Swiss project has city dwellers enthusiastically farming rare vegetable varieties while producing free seeds for all

This article originally appeared in FUTUREPERFECT.

Slivi Limonje looks like a lemon. Bulging Vincent’s appearance is deceptive, too: Is it a bell pepper or a tomato? Both are masters of disguise. Looking at a “bull’s heart,” we are quite certain it is a tomato — we’ve seen that one in our stores. In our minds, a tomato is supposed to be round and red, because our perception of variety is limited to what is offered at the supermarket.

photo of tomatoesPhoto Zacharias Thiel/ProSpecieRara The Swiss foundation ProSpecieRara engages urban dwellers in gardening rare species of tomatoes and other vegetables.

The people at ProSpecieRara want to change all of that by reintroducing old varieties that will turn our definition of a tomato on its head: pink giants, green minis, varieties that are striped red and yellow. The Swiss foundation cultivates 140 different types of tomatoes, helping to protect a total of 3,800 old cultivated plants and a few species of farm animals from extinction. Since its founding 34 years ago, wooly pigs, Appenzeller Spitzhauben chickens, and booted mountain goats have come back to live amongst the Holstein cattle; black corn and yellow raspberries have made Swiss fields and gardens more colorful. The Urban Tomatoes campaign seeks to raise botanical diversity in cityscapes, as well — all the way up to urban balconies! But how does one stir the interest of city dwellers in earthy agrarian topics? With seeds, shovels, and social media.

DIY-gardening is on the rise

For the past five years, ProSpecieRara, in collaboration with the cities of Geneva, Lausanne, and Zurich, has been producing tomato starter kits — seeds and a tutorial — which can be ordered on their website and via social media. Similar kits featuring lettuce and bell peppers are recent additions to the foundation’s portfolio. With a few posts in early spring, Nicole Egloff gets the ball, or rather the tomato, rolling. As soon as the first orders land in her inbox, her Basel office morphs into a veritable shipping factory. “We are able to process the large volume of orders thanks to many volunteers, interns, and our flexible office staff,” the 34-year-old head of communications explains. Ever since she came on board as a public relations intern over nine years ago, she has been driving fresh publicity campaigns together with project manager Anna Kornicker and advising hobby-gardeners when they run into problems, from brown leaves to white flies. Her PR skills were particularly needed this past year because the Urban Tomato project has really sprouted — pushing the foundation’s logistical boundaries, leaving the seed inventory depleted after only two-and-a-half weeks and Egloff in need of a vacation.

Finally, an offline version of “Farmville”

“Tomatoes, not Tamagotchi,” is how Egloff describes the change in mindset that turned artificial urbanites into passionate gardeners. Parents are giving their kids shovels and seed, celebrating the miracle of life with them on their balconies. For the first time, the young ones are taking responsibility for something that is alive; nurturing, marveling, observing, and experiencing occasional disappointments along the way. Children begin to understand the circle of life and learn that “round and red” is just one of many variations of the tomato. And adult urban gardeners, weary of consumerism, are seeking their roots and finding them in the garden. Counting a good 25,000 Urban Tomato Ambassadors in five years, ProSpecieRara reached its goal faster than intended. Egloff can see the writing on the wall: The time is ripe for new old vegetables.

Boasting your own breeds online

The fruits of their garden labor are also ripe, dangling like Christmas ornaments from the branches of their green mothers who have taken root on balconies, in back yards and urban gardens throughout the city. Urban Tomato growers document the growth stages of their respective sprouts and share their joy through pictures on Facebook. This also allows Egloff some insight into the diversity of the hobby farmers. Many have just started this season, while others have been demonstrating a green thumb for decades. From 4 to 92, and everything in-between, gardeners of all ages are helping to secure the next generation of tomatoes, because this project is about more than sowing seed, planting, and harvesting.

photo of tomatoesPhoto Irene Stutz/ProSpecieRara After harvesting their vegetables, hobby farmers participate in the seed production process.

Once it is harvest time, the hobby farmers open their nicely illustrated user manual and pick up where they left off, section number three: how to wash, dry, and store the seeds. That is how seed production works, but only if the seeds are suitable for sowing. Most varieties of seed available in stores are hybrids that cannot reproduce. A handful of large global agrochemical corporations and their patents on vegetable breeds determine what we eat, and as the old adage goes, what we are.

Fun activity, serious endeavor

In this regard, the tomato hobby is actually a very serious topic and members of ProSpecieRara are freedom fighters of sorts, fighting seed-producing giants with their own weapons. They enable hobby farmers as well as full-time gardeners to grow just under 4,000 plant species. The foundation has managed to continuously expand its diversity and knowledge base and even get the large corporations on their side with their workshops, lobbying, info sessions, and networking. Swiss wholesale cooperative “Coop” has been offering vegetables and fruit with the foundation seal and selling rare-species of seeds and seedlings in their gardening branches for several years, which in turn is expected to increase the number of seed-reproducing gardeners.

Tomato fans were able to meet face-to-face at last year’s Urban Tomato festival, to exchange their various breeds of seed. Many of them held up signs: “Will swap black princes for green zebras!” Others tried slices of Slivi Limonje and bell pepper-tomato Vincent at the long sampling tables. The bull’s heart tomato has been getting a lot less attention since then … because you can buy it at almost any supermarket now.

Translated by Kerstin Trimble.

Claudia Thöny
Claudia Thöny reports for FUTURZWEI from Switzerland. She studied business administration with a focus on journalism and communication in Lucerne and Berlin.

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