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While he worked with Crenshaw melons during his time in Manhattan, Kansas, it was the tomato plant that lured him to North Carolina State for graduate work in 1993. Under adviser Randy Gardner, Mueller began to research vine-ripened tomatoes (as opposed to the tomatoes picked green that ripen in transit to the supermarket). He worked with growers, moving inland from the beach to a cabin in Asheville, North Carolina, in order to develop breeding lines that could fight early blight and still be tasty.
"It's the equivalent of certain overly popular dog breeds or Middle Ages royal families," Estabrook says. "Tomatoes can be genetically weak and vulnerable to all sorts of diseases."
Gardner and Mueller's research involved crossbreeding, wherein two different strains of tomatoes are married in an attempt to create a new line with desirable characteristics. The parents (the two breeding plants) are selected, and the seeds of the hybrid plant produce a new tomato. The seeds can then be tested over several generations and in different conditions. It's a scientific approach to the same strategies used by the generation of truck farmers that included Mueller's grandfathers.
"I don't have a problem with genetic modification," Mueller says. "I just don't believe that people actually know what they're doing."
He moved back to Overland Park in 1998 and began experimenting with pigmentation genes and disease resistance. He ordered seeds from the Tomato Genetics Resource Center at the University of California–Davis, and the Asian Vegetable Research and Development Center in Taiwan.
"Nobody's touched these things from the 1950s," he says. "But I can hopefully build off their work, and even if I won't see the end result, somebody else will." He started with a small plot at Bear Creek Farms in Osceola, Missouri, nine years ago. But $60 tanks of gas in his truck added up, particularly because he hadn't yet begun to sell seeds online.
Then he had a fortuitous meeting at a tree nursery. Sky Kurlbaum, who owns Kurlbaum Tomatoes with his wife, Liz, remembers Mueller sitting in the back of the room and gently correcting his mistakes.
"I was giving a talk on tomatoes, and he caught me when I made up a word," Kurlbaum says. "Afterward, I went up and introduced myself to find out more about this smart guy."
On a handshake three years ago, Kurlbaum agreed to let Mueller have a small piece of land to try out different crossbreeds. "It's good to have a guy like that on our farm," Kurlbaum says. "He helps us understand exactly what's going on in the field."
On a sunny September day, Mueller looks out on that field from the other side of a creek lined by persimmon trees. He squats between a row of tomato plants and digs through leaves that have begun to droop. The growing season is over for the tomato breeder, but he's back to collect a final bit of data. Mueller cuts into a cherry tomato with a pen knife, his fingers pointing out the coloration of the gel and flesh of the marble-sized fruit.
Every few feet is a ribbon of pink plastic — a color-coded reminder of which plants he means to study further. He has spent hundreds of hours out on the farm since May 15, the start of his growing season, dictating notes about color and growth patterns into his iPhone. He looks for when each plant ripens, hoping one will yield the same aha moment that he experienced as an 8-year-old at a diner.
"I think there is a market shift," Estabrook says. "Growers are slowly beginning to realize the obvious: that people will pay for flavor."