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A new generation takes up tomato breeding tradition

Dean Williams can’t park his Subaru Outback in his garage anymore. He’s turned that space in his Huntington, West Virginia home into a makeshift tomato nursery. Dozens of baby tomato plants stick out of plastic pots filled with Pro-Mix seed-starting soil. Those pots sit on a table made of plywood and sawhorses. Grow lights hover just above the plants, dangling on chains that reach to the ceiling. Though Williams has gardened for years, this is the first time he has ever tried to raise anything from seed.
“It worried me because I started them and they say they are supposed to germinate within five and 12 days,” Williams said. “Well, day 12 arrived and nothing had come up yet.” This disappointed Williams, because these aren’t just regular tomatoes. They are Estler Mortgage Lifters, a tomato developed in the 1920s by Williams’ grandfather-in-law, William Estler of Barboursville.

William Estler created his tomato by crossbreeding Ponderosa and Pritchard tomatoes, resulting in a pink and sweet fruit. He raised the plants for years until his death in 1968. His son Bob Estler then spent the rest of his own life raising the plants and attempting to raise awareness about his father’s tomato.

Just when Williams thought all hope was gone, seven plants sprouted from the soil. “By that evening I had 20 up,” Williams said. “And by the next day I had 45. And it just kept exploding over the next three to four days.” Williams eventually found himself with 185 tomato plants. But only a dozen are destined for his own garden. He’s providing the rest to local greenhouses – Hatcher’s Greenhouse in South Point, Ohio, and Joyce’s Greenhouse in Huntington – so local gardeners can grow Estler Mortgage Lifters in their own backyards.

Even this is a continuation of a long family tradition. Both greenhouses used to raise Mortgage Lifters for Bob Estler. “It’s my wife’s legacy. Her family’s legacy,” Williams said. “I’d like to see this get some ground roots behind it and see other people find some interest and want it to move forward, too.” Williams isn’t charging the greenhouses for the plants – just like his father-in-law Bob didn’t charge for the bushels and bushels of tomatoes and Mortgage Lifter seeds he gave away through the years.  

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