Use of Designer Crops Increases, Home Gardeners Keep Heirloom Strains Alive

Despite persistent questions by some about the health of eating genetically engineered (GE) crops or the food from animals that eat them, and concerns about their impact on the environment, the use of these new designer plants has risen sharply.

The USDA just released data on the increasing use of GE crops and the graphical trend is striking. According to the report: “U.S. farmers have adopted genetically engineered (GE) crops widely since their introduction in 1996, notwithstanding uncertainty about consumer acceptance and economic and environmental impacts.”

On a different front, this summer, as government and corporations continue to advance the use of GE crops, backyard tomato growers are busy as ever keeping old-time heirloom strains alive garden by garden. One perennially popular variety is called the Radiator Charlie Mortgage Lifter and here is its story.

The name he went by was Charlie or just plain MC and “he’d get mad if anybody said it is Marshall Cletis Byles,” said his grandson. Charlie was a hardworking man with no formal education.

“Well, I’ve always had a mind of doing things that nobody else couldn’t do. I never been to school a day in my life but anything I wanted to do, I done it,” said Charlie.

He got his start in farming at age four helping his mom in the fields of North Carolina when he was just knee high to a mule. “I had to go out there and start pickin’ cotton,” Charlie said.

Charlie took a number of jobs through the Depression Era and into the next decade. He served in the National Guard. He toured Appalachia earning money as a wrestler taking home a dollar for every minute he lasted in the ring. “I never lost, but very few times,” Charlie boasted. He also served as an airmail pilot. Eventually he settled as a mechanic repairing the local coal mining trucks of Logan, West Virginia and that is where he took on the handle “Radiator Charlie.”

In the early 1940s Radiator Charlie turned his indomitable attention to tinkering with tomatoes. He wanted to create something big, meaty and with few seeds. “What I did I took ten plants and put them in a circle and put one in the center,” he said.

He planted seeds from four tomato varieties of the largest fruiting plants he could find and surrounded a different type called a German Johnson. He gathered the pollen from the circle of plants and pollinated the German Johnson, whose seeds he then saved and started again the next season. He repeated the process for the next six years.

The new variety of plant he created produced meaty, colossal-sized tomatoes weighing in at over four pounds in some instances. Word began to spread about the incredible new tomato ‘ol Radiator Charlie was growing. People wanted to know where they could get their green thumbs on the seeds of this new wonder plant. And soon Radiator Charlie was in business peddling his own specialty strain of tomato to eager gardeners.

People drove from as far away as 200 miles to buy Charlie’s tomato plants for a dollar a piece, which in the 1940s was a considerable bit of change for a vegetable seedling. He sold so many plants that he was able to pay off his six thousand dollar mortgage on his house in six years.

And the legendary Radiator Charlie’s Mortgage Lifter tomato was born etching his name in the annals of Americana forever. Gardeners still grow the famous strain Marshall Cletis Byles, a.k.a Radiator Charlie, created.

Originally published online at Hippie Magazine.

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