A University of Arkansas at Monticello professor thinks he’s discovered a fruity treasure in Southeast Arkansas in the form of a rare tomato plant.
UAM Agriculture Professor Paul Francis, Ph.D, met Master Gardener Edna Ballard nearly a decade ago at a garden workshop at McGehee. That is where he obtained a few of her, “special” seeds.
Ballard provided Francis seed samples of what Francis believed to be a variation of an Indian or Purple Tomato.
Francis is waiting on official word on the name Edna Beefy Sweety being registered.
“Those seeds had been handed down through family generations.” Francis said. “Each year she would separate and keep only the best seeds from only the best plants. Essentially, she was selectively breeding the plant.”
Thinking it was just another Indian Tomato, Francis planted the seeds. But after the plants matured, he found astonishing results. Francis decided there was something magical about Ballard’s tomato seeds.
“I got some seed and started growing it. I noticed it looked different, it yielded very well. It was purple and large, and the genetics on it were very different,” said Francis.
It was unlike anything else out there that he had come across. In October of 2019, Francis decided it was time to get the plant strain some national recognition.
Ballard had been a longtime gardener from south Arkansas with homes at Lake Wallace then Monticello and eventually after a second marriage back to Lake Wallace. Initially, she grew food to support her six children. Later, after she retired, she became well known for her day lilies, herbs and landscaping plants. Family members say Ballard was a founder of the Southeast Arkansas Master Gardeners.
In 2012, the State Master Gardener conference chose Ballard’s yard and gardens as one of only four available for tours. More than 200 people visited and admired her beautiful landscaping, flowers and vegetables.
Her son, Phillip Stringfellow, said his mother was not afraid to provide manual labor in the garden. Stringfellow said she used a traditional garden hoe and pulled a water hose.
“Boy, she would show you her muscle. She wouldn’t hesitate to show you her muscle. She was proud of her muscle because of her hard work,” said Stringfellow.
Fellow Master Gardener and friend, Don Hogue of Monticello, commuted with Ballard to Pine Bluff in 2003 to attend classes to obtain their Master Gardener certification.
“She was into a little bit of everything,” Hogue said. “In her garden at her house, which is probably an acre, she had all different types of plants, and she worked it herself.”
He too remembers her special brand of tomato. He acquired some of the extraordinary seed samples and grew them with marvelous results. He described the Indian Tomato as having excellent flavor.
Seed Saver Exchange and Seed Preservation
Ballard passed away in January of 2018. In her honor, Francis kept experimenting and growing the fascinating tomato plant.
Francis continued researching the plant and concluded that Ballard and her rare tomato should be officially recognized as a unique find. Believing he had found something genetically different, Francis sought confirmation of his discovery.
He wrote the Seed Saver Exchange to see if they would accept the seeds into their archives. The Seed Savers Exchange based in Decorah, Iowa, has 20,000 samples of seeds stored in its seed bank. They too believed he was onto something exclusive.
Seed Savers Historian Sara Staate said it helps that the seed also has a backstory to tell. Straate said she is looking forward to getting seed samples to begin the process of registering the plant and entering the seed into its vault. She says the goal of seed savers is to preserve the genetics of plants.
Before the plant can be registered with the Exchange, they require the backstory and a name for the seed. Francis wanted the name of the tomato plant to come from the family. Stringfellow said he along with his sisters had a family meeting to decide upon a name.
“We tried to come up with a catchy name, and a truthful name, so the terms meaty, beefy and sweet were tossed around. Of course, they included the name of their mother, Edna. Thus, the Edna Beefy, Sweet tomato was created,” said Stringfellow.
Francis and his research lab assistant believe they have collected enough seed samples and are in the process of sending them to Seed Savers for recognition.
Francis now awaits official word on the name Edna Beefy Sweety being registered and becoming part of the seed archive. Francis said at some point, he hopes to see the seeds offered to the general public.
Her fellow Master Gardener Don Hogue might have said it best.
“She didn’t have any formal education in horticulture, but she knew an awful lot about it,” he said.