There’s typically one person in any industry who can claim the term “mother of” or “father of.” Father of Napa Valley wine? Robert Mondavi. Mother of California cuisine? Alice Waters. Father of electric cars? Elon Musk. Mother of turning America on to French cooking? Julia Child. Father of heirloom tomatoes? That would be Gary Ibsen.
It’s an understatement to say that Ibsen is well-known in the heirloom tomato world. He practically invented it.
Early in life, Ibsen pursued a Forrest Gumpian array of career paths. Among other pursuits, he built a successful publishing career, launching several magazines, including Adventures in Dining—first in Colorado, then California, where he took up residence in the 1970s.
It was there, in the sun-kissed Carmel Valley, that he first became acquainted with heirloom tomatoes. Ibsen had long gardened as a relaxing, rewarding hobby. “I was intrigued by my neighbor’s tomato garden,” he says. “He sent me home with a few heirloom plants, told me about their history, how they’d been passed down through the generations. It was fascinating.”
He sent me home with a few heirloom plants, told me about their history, how they’d been passed down through the generations. It was fascinating.
That fascination led Ibsen to become a pioneer in the organically grown heirloom tomato business. “I sold the magazine and went all in on tomatoes,” he says. He started near Carmel Valley’s Quail Lodge. “I turned that rocky soil into a tomato field with a hand tiller,” Ibsen recalls. Unfortunately, a blight hit, wiping out all his plants. He was undeterred. “I started growing in Firebaugh, California, and shipped to restaurants and Whole Foods in Monterey.” It wasn’t an easy sell. “The manager told me, ‘I can’t sell these colored tomatoes.’ We set up a table, offering tastes to customers.” That did it, Ibsen says. “That store went from two 20-pound cases to two tons a week.”
Ibsen and his wife, Dagma Lacey, invited a group of chefs for a Sunday afternoon backyard gathering. “I asked everyone to bring a tomato dish,” Ibsen says. Et voilà: Carmel TomatoFest was born. In a lovely twist of fate, the event was eventually held at Quail Lodge, the site of Ibsen’s early failure. “We featured 50 to 60 Central Coast chefs, 50 wineries, and live music,” he says proudly. And, of course, heirloom tomatoes. After a long, successful run, Ibsen and Lacey returned to the business of growing tomatoes.
In 2004, Ibsen stopped producing tomatoes for fresh distribution and concentrated on growing solely for seed. Today, 650 varieties of heirloom tomatoes are available on his website, www.tomatofest.com, grown on the Mendocino property Ibsen and Lacey now call home.
This is not just a business—it’s a passion, a vision, and a calling. “I made it a mission to not only save the tomato varieties but also their stories. These are family stories, national stories, and I want to protect them as much as the seeds,” he says. “Also, Dagma and I are among the founders of the World Tomato Society, and that organization’s focus dovetails with ours.” Ibsen’s reputation has enabled him to expand the seed bank to the size it is. “People from around the world send me seeds because they hear of us,” he says. And so the father of the heirloom tomato’s renaissance will enable future generations to savor the fruits of his labors.