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Craig LeHoullier wants to make better tomatoes easier to get

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Craig LeHoullier does not qualify his life goals. Seated on a stool at the gleaming brown granite countertops of his North Raleigh kitchen, LeHoullier leaps up after he mentions that he and his wife of 30 years, Susan, hope to sample every stout and porter in the world. He rushes toward a nearby closet, opens the door and pulls out two large brews from a small armada of brown bottles.

"We're into beer in a big way. What a fun pursuit," he says, smiling. "This probably is my heaven beer—the Rogue's Double Chocolate Stout. But if you ever see the Hoppin' Frog B.O.R.I.S. the Crusher, you have to try it."

LeHoullier has been experimenting with ice cream made with the Rogue's, but since it's mid-July, LeHoullier—not known as a beer expert—is too busy for these diversions. He's known internationally as the N.C. Tomato Man, a history, politics, gardening, research and flavor-obsessed enthusiast who's unequivocal about his hope to give the world better tomatoes—and to have fun and be fair doing it.

"I like to know about things, but I get bored with the same old thing, whether it's music, beer, wine, dark chocolate, movies. I think it's related to Myers-Briggs. I'm an NF [intuitive feeler], the Apollonian Temperament; I'm always seeking," says LeHoullier, a longtime chemist with a doctorate from Dartmouth and a retirement package from GlaxoSmithKline. "If there are 10,000 heirloom tomatoes in the world, by the time I die, I'm going to aim to eat all 10,000. It won't happen, but I'll try."

The previous day, LeHoullier, 55, was at Tomatopalooza, toting a tray of sweaty cucumber slices through a shaded but still very hot shelter in a wooded Apex community park. "Would you like some cucumber to cleanse your palate?" he asked the few dozen people who wandered between the shelter's three long rows of tables. They grazed on more than 166 varieties of tomatoes, taking notes and collecting seeds in small plastic bags. LeHoullier warmly answered questions about new breeds and, when appropriate, shared the tale of a tomato or two.

LeHoullier founded Tomatopalooza nine years ago as an opportunity for fellow zealots to showcase and share their garden experiments. It has grown so much that advance registration is now required; though it's free, this year's event actually "sold out," with LeHoullier simply shutting down the registration system several days before the fruit filled the tables.

Because of the heat, attendance was a bit lower than he expected—at least when it came to people. The day's stars didn't fret the weather: There were sections for red tomatoes, pink tomatoes, yellow tomatoes, green tomatoes, bicolor tomatoes and cherry tomatoes. Names ranged from the ordinary (Roma and Brandywine) and seemingly scientific (Brawny F2 -A and Brawny F2 -C) to the playful (Mexico Midget and Sarandipity) and intriguing (Cossack Pineapple and Halladay's Mortgage Lifter). Each variety sported a name tag and filled a paper plate, a tomato sliced and waiting to be sampled with toothpicks or over-eager fingers.

For all that diversity, though, LeHoullier spent most of the day at the end of one row of tables advertised with a small paper sign: "Dwarf," it read. That section, LeHoullier hopes, might be Tomatopalooza's revolutionary work, its legacy act. These tomatoes will be the ones that anyone can grow in any space available—a small porch or stoop, the balcony of a condo, a rooftop. Through dwarves, he hopes, everyone can have better tomatoes.

LeHoullier is the grandson and son of New England gardeners. After getting married, he decided to follow the family tradition, so he and Sue would pick up packs of standard seedlings at hardware stores and plant them. His food wasn't fulfilling his curiosity: "I got bored with the same old thing. I knew these tomatoes were going to be red, and I knew exactly what they were going to taste like."

In 1985, LeHoullier read a magazine article about the Seed Savers Exchange, a program that not only archived historic varieties of plants but also allowed people to network and share their finds. He soon joined, planted his first heirloom tomato in 1986 (the midsize red Nepal) and continues his quest for better tomatoes. In fact, two weeks ago, he delivered the keynote address at the 31st annual Seed Savers Conference in Decorah, Iowa. Titled "Tomorrow's Heirlooms," the speech focused largely on the dwarves and how they are an opportunity to grow the most enduring tomatoes of the future.

"It was one of the first times the conference heard something truly new in a long, long time," LeHoullier says. For years at farmers markets, people asked LeHoullier what tomato they should grow on their decks, presumably in plastic pots and without the elaborate staking-and-tying systems that the massive, sprawling bushes often require when they tower in the family garden. The best tomatoes, he noted, couldn't be grown on the decks; they were simply too big, too demanding.

But access to tomatoes, he figured, shouldn't be determined by space. One day, while browsing a 1915 seed catalog, he found an old idea that deserved to be revived.

"The Isbell Seed Company had an entry for a tomato called 'New Big Dwarf,'" he says. "They took the biggest tomato they had at the time, and they crossed it with a short, dwarf-growing variety. What's weird is that they didn't take it further. It was up to us."

Six years ago, LeHoullier and a team of tomato growers from Australia established the Dwarf Tomato Project in hopes of creating new tomatoes people could grow in smaller spaces. This summer, LeHoullier's driveway is a flood of botanical experiments, from new peppers he's trying to create to rows of successful dwarf tomato plants. Some of these are now being sold by his favorite seed distributors and grown on several continents.

LeHoullier is undoubtedly obsessed with the tomato as a food: its myriad flavors, shapes, colors and sizes. He talks about his favorite varieties, like the Cherokee Purple, which he rescued from obscurity and helped popularize to the point that even Martha Stewart Living sold its seeds, and his descriptions are detailed and deliberate. When he mentions Lillian's Yellow, another forgotten heirloom he brought back into circulation, he discusses it as a work of art, obsessing over its low seed count, the hue of its skin and the happenstance that brought it into his life—"part of the story, part of the flavor, part of the beauty." LeHoullier sees heirloom tomatoes, which often sport histories that form their own food folklore, a part of a storyteller's oral tradition.

He hopes they're part of a tradition of caring, too. Indeed, LeHoullier's agricultural interest moves beyond the palate and into his politics. He gives the most successful dwarf varieties to seed companies he thinks do the best and most honorable work. He has never sought compensation for the seeds he has saved. Each year, he and Sue simply sell enough seedlings at farmers markets to cover the supplies that this year's crop has demanded. He donates the rest; this year he has distributed more than 2,000 tiny tomato plants to the Inter-faith Food Shuttle, Seeds Inc. and Toxic Free N.C. Having finally bowed out of the corporate world early this year, he doesn't need to earn money from his tomatoes, unlike a small family farmer or a multinational corporation.

"I'm at a place in life where I don't need to sell them. If the tables were turned...," he says, pausing and staring into his open garage, full of kayaks and lawn equipment and the workbench he uses to ferment and collect his seeds. "I don't know if it would change anything, actually. I just want to give these things away to people."

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