By Jeff Quattrone, Founder Library Seed Bank
May 27, 2019
Five years ago when I started my Library Seed Bank (LSB) project, I knew I was going to create the change I wanted to see in the world, and I was doing it on my terms. I never thought that I would part of a tomato farmer’s legacy about a tomato that was bred in Gloucester County, NJ, which is the county I grew up in and learned how to grow tomatoes. When a story presents itself to you to be told, you should tell it.
One spring day in 2018, an email popped into my phone asking me if I ever heard of a tomato called the Kille #7. The sender was looking for information about it because her grandfather developed it, and she wanted to share her family’s legacy with her daughter in the garden. She asked me if I could help her. Of course I would.
When I found out that her grandfather’s farm was in the county where I grew up, where I launched LSB, and where I have six seed libraries with one more possible in 2019, I wanted to stand up and yell, “F*cking Aye”, but I was at my day job in a cubical. So, I just stood up, and yelled it in my head.
Then, I became a man on a mission. I frantically checked my first source for tomato information, Tatiana’s Tomatobase. I saw the Kille #7 listed there with a seed vendor, the Sandhill Preservation Center. Before I could jump out of my skin, I had to go to Sandhill’s website, and see if seeds were available for 2018.
I got to Sandhill’s website, and they had seeds for the 2018 season! At this point, I wanted to stand up, jump out of my skin and once again, yell “F*cking Aye!” but as stated above, I was at my day job in a cubicle. So, I just stood up. And sat right back down. And stood up again. I decided to stop doing that because I didn’t want to look like a whack a mole.
I reply to the original email in all caps, which was not intended, that I found seeds, and asking my contact to call me. I typed in the wrong phone number. I was off by a digit in the area code because, well, I was trapped in a cubicle and I was about to burst with excitement.
My contact was able to figure my phone number out and called. We chatted on the phone, and I found out that Willard Bronson Kille, the farmer who developed the Kille #7 won a national farming award in 1925. The award was presented to him by the then governor of New York, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. It was all in a newspaper article that a copy would be sent to me.
The family has seed pouches with the Kille #7 stamped on them, but they didn’t contain seeds. Now that they had a seed source, the growing legacy could continue. It would make a great story if it ended there. However, I’m a very curious person, and when my curiosity gets engaged, tenacity kicks in and I’m off. I love history. And tomatoes. History plus tomatoes equal my bliss.
I started with some preliminary research at the county historical society. I found a 2004 newspaper article about local crop history. As I was skimming it, there it was, a shout out to Willard B. Kille, his tomato experimental farm, and his most significant tomato, the Kille #7. The article said in the 1960s, the Kille #7 was a very popular tomato locally, and somewhat nationally. Again, I wanted to jump up and out my skin yelling “F*cking Aye,” but I was in research library. So, I stood up and asked for a photo copy of the article instead.
The natural progression in my mind now was for a county proclamation. This tomato has to be declared an Gloucester County, NJ original heirloom tomato. Is that a natural progression of thought? Well, maybe not necessarily, but my alias is Tomato Quattrone.
I asked the mayor of a town that I’m active in what’s the procedure for getting a proclamation about a tomato. She passed my message along to the county freeholder’s office with a strong message of support of the community work that I do, especially with seeds.
I get a voice mail from the freeholder’s office asking me to call them. I call right back and my contact there was introducing herself. She gave me the backstory about how this came to her and what the procedure was for a county proclamation. Then, is a polite tone, I hear ‘Jeff, we don’t do proclamations for tomatoes. We do them for people, but if you can get enough of history then we will see what we could do.”
Success! This is a win. They were allowing me to make my case. My birthday was coming up. The historical society was going to be open on it, and what better way to celebrate it then researching the history of an accomplished farmer, his most successful tomato and his contribution to the county where I grew up in, all for the first proclamation about a tomato in Gloucester County, NJ.
By the end of that day of research I had 17 pages of history, (which happens to be my birthdate.) Included in the research was the award that Kille got from the state of NJ for being an outstanding farmer. In addition to his national award, I found out he was an active citizen in his local community and in the agriculture community. He has a great story.
I scanned it all, composed a PDF, and send it off. My contact from the freeholder’s called to thank me for all the research, mentioned that she was impressed with the contributions that Kille made, and closed “… but we don’t do proclamations for tomatoes.”
Some time passed, and I got the voice mail, “Jeff, please call me.” So I did, and I heard the news, they were going to issue a proclamation for Kille and his tomato! They were impressed with the history and the significance of Kille’s contribution to the history of the county.
Now, the question was posed to me, “Where was the proclamation going the be read?” That was a very good question. In case you haven’t picked it up, I was new to the proclamation game. I was trying to organize an event around tomatoes, but things were falling through. The weather here last summer was awful for tomatoes. The Kille #7 plants that I was growing in a Gloucester County, NJ community garden started out so strong, but they got hammered by the weather like the rest of the tomato crop. There was no event for the proclamation to be read.
The county offered to give me copies unread, again another step outside of protocol. They were great to work with on this. I asked for a copy to send to the family, and a copy for myself. What I didn’t know was, I had my own WHEREAS in the proclamation, and not for pushing them to issue a proclamation for a tomato. It was for my work to get this tomato to her home soil, to provide a way for the residents to grow the local pride known as the Kille #7, and to honor Willard B. KIlle for his legacy. I was humbled to read that.
For someone who works to preserve local heirloom foods as an heirloom seed activist, having the opportunity to help a seed get back home is a gift and a dream come true. When it’s to the county where you grew up in and where you learned to grow tomatoes, and where you launched you seed library project, that’s divine.
In 2014, I brought the concept of seed libraries to the area of southern NJ where I live. The first two were in Gloucester County, the county where the Kille #7 was developed. I also work with Slow Food International to preserve local food biodiversity with the Ark of Taste project, and I’m a member of the Slow Food Seed Working Group.
There are now six seed libraries in Gloucester County, NJ. Recently, the Gloucester County Library system became the first county level library system southern NJ to have seed libraries. Until this happened, the seed libraries were at independent town libraries. Through a collaboration with the three seed libraries that were up and running in March 2019, and my LSB project, we’re reintroduced the Kille #7 with a controlled grow out program. The goal is building a local and sustainable seed supply so the tomato and Willard B. Kille’s legacy will live on, and never leave again.
To celebrate the fifth anniversary of my LSB project on March 2, 2019, the county proclamation was read in Woodbury, NJ, along with a city proclamation from Woodbury, which is the county seat of Gloucester County, NJ. It was Woodbury’s mayor who I asked about the proclamation procedure. Woodbury is where I did my research at the county historical society, and is we started releasing the seeds for the growing program through the second seed library I set up.
In closing I’d like to say, “Welcome home Kille #7 may your legacy live on through the seeds we save, and here’s to never leaving again.”