Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

March 11, 2013

West Virginia ’63 tomatoes still powerful draw for sesquicentennial

By BILL ARCHER
Bluefield Daily Telegraph

MORGANTOWN — Anyone who waited for the release date to participate in the free packet of West Virginia ’63 tomato seeds, waited too long.

“We’ve already ran out,” Ann Bailey Berry, associate director of the West Virginia University Extension Service said. “As of Friday we have had almost 19,000 requests. We had no idea that there would be this many requests.” The extension service re-released the tomatoes as part of the state’s sesquicentennial celebration this year.

The WV ’63 tomatoes aren’t the average tomato. During the 1950s, a (then) associate professor at WVU made an incredible discovery concerning late blight disease at the West Virginia Agriculture and Forestry Station near Huttonsville. Late blight, caused by the fungus Phytophthora infestans, was responsible for the crop failure that led to the Irish potato famine of 1845-’50 — an historic event that led to a great out-migration of natives of Ireland — many of whom settled in North America.

Mannon E. Gallegly, now professor emeritus of mycology at WVU, had planted tomatoes and potatoes on a plot of land at the forestry station and lost most of his crop to the blight. However, a few wild tomato plants survived that blight, and gave professor Gallegly a foothold in his efforts to develop blight-resistant characteristics in tomatoes. During the next few years, Gallegly developed a blight-resistant tomato that he called “the People’s Tomato.” Gallegly’s blight-resistant tomato was released in 1963 as part of the state’s centennial celebration. It was distributed under its new name — WV ’63.

Berry was at a loss to explain how a modest offering from the WVU Extension Service could “have taken on a life and popularity of its own,” she wrote in an email message dated Feb. 18, and sent it to extension offices statewide. In her email message, Berry referred to the developments as “the seed gold rush,” and said that the staff of the WVU Extension Agriculture and Natural Resources Unit as well as personnel at Davis College were busy counting and packaging seeds.

The office announced in February that the seeds would be ready for distribution on March 4, but the flood of requests surprised Berry and the staff. “For those of you who have requested seeds for your camps or summer programs, that will be too late for planting,” Berry wrote. “Other county office requests will be filled as we can, but supplies will be limited.”

“It’s a great story of how Professor Gallegly developed the WV ’63 tomato,” Berry said during a March 7, telephone interview. “A lot of people are thinking about their gardens in February when we made the announcement. It’s free, and a lot of people like free things.

“We’re excited that a lot of people are gardening,” Berry said. “We’re pleased with it.”

There are no longer any seeds available through this program.

— Contact Bill Archer at barcher@bdtonline.com