SUNOL -- In a corner of Fred Hempel's 12-acre farm, two hearty piles of blue, pink and orange squash lay piled under blankets for warmth.

In the back of Hempel's truck, a box of recently plucked tomatoes -- a new breed of heirlooms known as Captain Lucky -- sit amongst cherry tomatoes Hempel fondly nicknamed "bumblebees" or "tigers."

Many of these hybrid fruits and veggies are not readily available to everyday consumers, and Hempel, co-founder of Artisan Seeds at Baia Nicchia Farms in Sunol, likes it that way.

The seeds are the product of months, if not years, of cross-pollination to make his produce something special.

Hempel admits that he likes to create only the best for those he sells to, and the seeds that his company will eventually sell to vendors, chefs and distributors from his cross-pollinating experiments can take quite a while to perfect.

Originally in the biotechnology industry, Hempel began cross-pollinating for fun about a decade ago. In 2006, the land in Sunol became available, and Hempel said he could not pass up the opportunity to become a full-time farmer.

A few years ago, Hempel decided that instead of just growing unique varieties of tomatoes or squash, he wanted to be able to sell his creations to others so they too could experiment and grow their own fruits and vegetables.


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So Artisan Seeds, a joint venture between two breeding farms -- Baia Nicchia (Bay Niche) of Sunol and FrogsLeap Farm of Wisconsin -- was created.

Their efforts to breed unique types of fruits and vegetables have resulted in numerous breeding and testing nurseries throughout the United States.

Hempel added that any person can submit a variety to the company, and that the grower will get a royalty for each packet of seed sold. Hempel said he is optimistic growers will buy from Artisan Seeds because they want to support other small, independent growers.

Artisan Seeds will officially begin selling seeds from its website at the beginning of November.

One venture Hempel is hoping will get tongues wagging across the Bay Area is the Captain Lucky -- a green heirloom tomato that is marbled inside.

The Captain Lucky was created by happenstance in a man's backyard in North Carolina about a decade ago, is not only a new addition to the 25,000 current varieties of tomatoes, it has been a well-kept secret among tomato-growing enthusiasts.

Hempel planted seeds more than a year ago, and is currently breeding the tomatoes to be the exact size and shape he wants. So far, he has saved over 60,000 Captain Lucky seeds, which equates to about 3,000 packets of seeds.

Several varieties of striped cherry tomatoes are photographed at his Baia Nicchia farms in Sunol, Calif., on Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2012. The special variety
Several varieties of striped cherry tomatoes are photographed at his Baia Nicchia farms in Sunol, Calif., on Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2012. The special variety tomato have been featured at a number of Bay Area restaurants including Boulevard. (Anda Chu/Staff)

Despite the fact that the tomatoes are not as round or as plump as Hempel would like them just yet, Artisan Seeds has decided to begin selling Captain Lucky seeds online in coming weeks.

And you won't be disappointed, Hempel said.

"Nobody grows (Captain Lucky) and says they weren't impressed," he said. "It's just a tomato they love. The consensus is overwhelmingly positive."

In fact, two Bay Area chefs pounced on Hempel's offer to get their hands on the tomatoes -- Nancy Oakes, executive chef at Boulevard in San Francisco and Guillaume Bienaime, executive chef at Portola Kitchen in Portola Valley.

Bienaime has worked with Hempel for years, using a variety of his crops including cherry tomatoes and Highland kale.

"I know when I'm working with Fred, whatever I get is good," he said.

For Oakes, the opportunity to be creative with a relatively unheard product was a way to stay at the forefront of providing new, varied dishes to customers. Their sweet, yet acidic flavor balance will be something most have never had the pleasure of tasting, she added.

"Lots of chefs like to make dishes using one tomato," Oakes said. "With people having such good access to special ingredients, restaurants need to keep ahead of the eight-ball. Once something is regularly bought, it is no longer interesting. We have a vociferous audience in the Bay Area."

Contact Katie Nelson at 925-847-2164 or follow her at Twitter.com/katienelson210.

feeling seedy?
If you want to try your hand at growing unusual veggies, visit Baia Nicchia Farm's website at www.baianicchia.blogspot.com.


how to cross-pollinate
1. Locate a flower bud that is close to opening on one tomato plant. Pluck away the petals from the flower's base. This will reveal the pistil, which is the female portion of the plant, and the stamen, the male portion of the plant. Pulling away the petals at the base also removes the stamen and its sticky pollen. Don't allow that pollen to get on the stigma of the pistil. The tip of the pistil, where pollen will be delivered, is called the stigma.
2. Next, remove an entire bud loaded with pollen from the tomato plant you wish to pollinate with the first tomato plant. This should be done with a pair of tweezers. You can remove the petals from the bud to make the work a little easier.
3. Move the bud loaded with pollen to the first tomato plant's stigma. Brush the pollen onto the stigma. If the pollination worked, you will see a tomato begin to form in a few days.
4. Harvest seeds from your cross-pollinated overripe tomatoes to grow the tomato variety you created. Plant the seeds the following spring. The tomatoes from the seeds will be the new variety.
Source: www.eHow.com


why breed plants?
Since the practice of agriculture began, 8,000 to 10,000 years ago, farmers have been altering the genetic makeup of crops they grow.
Early farmers selected the best looking plants and seeds and saved them to plant for the next season. Then, once the science of genetics became better understood, plant breeders used what they knew about the genes of a plant to select for specific desirable traits to develop improved varieties.
The selection for features such as faster growth, higher yields, pest and disease resistance, larger seeds, or sweeter fruits has dramatically changed domesticated plant species compared to their wild relatives.
Source: isaaa.org