In 1989, Bill McDorman was running a small seed company and searching for plants that would survive in the high-altitude gardens (elevation 5,853 feet) in his hometown of Ketchum, Idaho. “One year, from Memorial Day to Labor Day, we had nine frosts and three hailstorms,” he recalls. As he searched for seeds in other high places around the world, he heard Siberian tomatoes were both cold-tolerant and great-tasting.
Serendipity stepped in when an invitation from the nonprofit Earthstewards Network arrived. With a tour group, McDorman embarked on a train trip from Moscow across five time zones of “unbelievably untouched” landscape. “It was a fairy tale time,” McDorman says. “The Soviet Union was opening up and wanting contact with the outside world. Siberia was so isolated. Everyone had to save their seeds, so they saved the ones that tasted the best.”
McDorman was able to bring 62 varieties back to the United States, which he carefully grew and observed to ensure he wasn’t introducing diseases. Within 10 years, 24 of those seeds could be found in catalogs around the world.
I’m just trying to find a good tomato, like everyone else.
Among them is Sasha’s Altai Siberian tomato, named to honor a gentleman McDorman met near Irkutsk who walked 12 miles into the Altai Mountains to retrieve them. These were later recognized as one of the “10 Best Early Tomatoes in the World” by Organic Gardening magazine. Another of McDorman’s favorites is the Galina, a small yellow cherry. “I’ve tasted a lot,” he says, “and to me, it’s the best blend of sweet and acid—and bursting with flavor.” Others agree: the Galina won the blue ribbon for Best of the Fair at the Iowa State Fair in the 1990s.
McDorman has devoted much of his life to helping connect communities with the seeds that sustain them. He was co-director of the nonprofit Native Seeds/SEARCH, and today is the executive director of the Rocky Mountain Seed Alliance, which he co-founded in 2014 in Ketchum. He takes tremendous pleasure in knowing his seeds continue to thrive, and that he’s now in a position to return the favor that the Siberians did for him. “They’re going through cultural changes and can’t find some seeds,” McDorman explains. “Now, through the system of growing, saving, and sharing seeds, we can give them back.”
In all his travels, the tomato enthusiast sticks to one humble goal: “I’m just trying to find a good tomato, like everyone else.”