Longtime North Carolina resident Dr. Randy Gardner has dedicated his more than 40-year career to helping farmers across the state grow flavorful, attractive, disease-resistant tomatoes.
Often called the Tomato King, Gardner is a tomato breeder whose primary focus is creating unique varieties of the fruit that will thrive in North Carolina – and through his impressive innovations, he’s made countless contributions to the state’s agriculture industry, serving both growers and consumers.
A Successful Career
Growing up on a small farm in Virginia, Gardner remembers cultivating his first patch of tomatoes as a 10-year-old boy. He says he quickly developed a passion for the crop, and he followed that passion to Virginia Tech, where he earned both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in horticulture.
“As an undergraduate student, I completed a work-study program with a tree fruit breeder, working primarily on apples and peaches,” Gardner says. “That’s when I became really interested in breeding work, and I knew I wanted to apply the knowledge I’d acquired to tomatoes.”
In 1976, after graduating from Cornell University with a doctoral degree in pomology with an emphasis on plant breeding and pathology, Gardner was asked to serve as the head of North Carolina State University’s (NCSU) new fresh-market tomato breeding program and breed tomatoes adapted to North Carolina conditions.
His tenure with the university lasted 32 years, and during that time, Gardner developed several varieties of tomatoes – many of which are still in circulation – including his first named variety, Mountain Pride, that was released in 1981 and designed to be resistant to verticillium wilt.
Since then, Gardner has released more than 22 tomato varieties, along with 30 breeding lines, and he is credited with developing the cultivars used on some 60 to 75 percent of the vine-ripe tomatoes grown in the eastern U.S. As a result, he’s received top honors in his field such as the 2015 All-American Selection Breeders Cup Award, which recognizes plant breeders who dramatically influence horticulture.
Although he’s been retired from NCSU since 2008, his work has never stopped. Gardner is currently working independently and developing what he calls “heirloom-type tomatoes” that are resistant to late blight, a fast-spreading disease that’s become a concern for many North Carolina tomato farmers.
“Tomatoes are such a fun crop to work with, and there’s always something new to learn about them,” Gardner says. “I’m proud that I’ve been able to develop varieties that have worked well for so many growers and helped them be successful.”
A Lasting Impact
Randall Patterson of Patterson Farm in China Grove is a perfect example of someone who has benefited from Gardner’s work. He remembers his father – a third-generation tomato farmer – working with Gardner to improve his tomato crop in the 1970s.
Today, Patterson grows several of Gardner’s tomato varieties, such as Mountain Fresh, which is a highly disease resistant variety that Patterson says he has counted on for more than 20 years, and he regularly seeks Gardner’s help when it comes to caring for his tomatoes.
In addition, Patterson reserves plots on his farm for Gardner’s breeding experiments – after all, he knows that chances are he’ll benefit from the results.
“Randy understands what we need as tomato growers. He understands our challenges and growing practices,” Patterson says. “Through his work breeding tomatoes, Randy has helped us conquer many of the diseases we’ve had to face in North Carolina, and we [as tomato growers] appreciate how he listens to what we need. He goes above and beyond, and he has truly done wonders for us and our industry.”