The father of the WV ’63 is still improving the tomato on our behalf.

Mannon Gallegly grew up on a cotton farm in Arkansas. He took a faculty position at West Virginia University in 1949 and became the state’s vegetable plant pathologist. Gallegly put particular effort into hybridizing tomatoes against the dreaded late blight that can destroy fruits and whole crops. After 13 years, he released his WV ’63 hybrid for the state’s 100th birthday: a blight-resistant plant that yields medium-sized fruits with “a flavor that just yells ‘SANDWICH!’” according to one seed catalog. Recently, Gallegly and research partner Mahfuz Rahman took on the worsening problem of the Septoria leaf spot fungus on tomatoes. WVU unveiled their WV ’17A and WV ’17B this spring and mailed 150 seed packets of both varieties to growers. The feedback will determine the plants’ futures. Gallegly is now 94 and a professor emeritus of plant pathology. We caught up with him to talk about tomatoes, bugs, and the land grant mission.

I put potato and tomato plots out in the Tygart valley in 1950, and my plants were killed by this tomato blight. I had been collecting wild tomatoes and a few of them stood there and were kind of resistant. They were very small tomatoes, some of them about the size of an end of a pencil eraser. So I started working with that resistance, crossing it to tomatoes with large fruit. It took me 13 years to get the size up, segregating bad habits and selecting for good characters. We started distributing seed in 1963, and we charged a quarter—“Send 25¢ and we’ll send you 25 seeds.”

This new marmorated stink bug hides in the daytime, comes out at night, gets the sticky Septorium spores on its body, and spreads the spores on the tomato plants. That’s what causes this increase in severity of Septoria leaf spot. I was 90 years old, so I went to a young colleague and said, “Would you join me in a breeding program? Because it took me 13 years the first time, and you may have to take over and finish it.”

That’s Mahfuz Rahman. We crossed the WV ’63 with this new variety from Cornell, Iron Lady, that has resistance to Septoria leaf spot, and we came out with these two lines that looked really good for fruit quality and size and yield. The resistance is not good enough—the Septoria resistance in the Iron Lady was not good enough—but what little bit it had, we captured it in the ’17A and ’17B.

The timing of the release is due to our dean of agriculture (Daniel J. Robison). He said, “Mannon, we have our 150th birthday of the formation of the college of agriculture and the university coming up. Could you release a new tomato variety in its honor?” So we did.

The ’17A has a little heavier fruit set, and it’s a little more tart than the ’63. The ’17B is larger, more beefsteak-size, and it’s sweeter than the ’63. So we’ll see how it goes. They’ve both got good color, uniform ripening, and resistance to other diseases. And only a slight tolerance to Septorium, but for people who spray their plants with a fungicide to control the leaf spot, it makes it easier. They also need to combine an insecticide to control the stink bug at the same time.

The land grant mission for a plant pathologist is to learn how to more economically control plant diseases. Breeding for resistance is the best way to do it, if you can find resistance. It takes a while. Also, if you can have resistance, you don’t have to spray fungicides and chemicals into the environment, so it’s a more organic method of control for plant disease.

Because we’re not happy with the resistance, we’re continuing breeding. It looks like we’re going to have to go back to wild tomatoes like Solanum peruvianum and Solanum corneliomuelleri. They actually have immunity, so we’re working with those. We’re going to continue and maybe come out with a 2020 variety: WV ’20.

photographed by m.g.ellis, west virginia university

Pam Kasey
Written by Pam Kasey
Pam Kasey has traveled, brewed, farmed, counseled, and renovated, but most loves to write. She has degrees in economics from the University of Chicago and in journalism from West Virginia University. She and her husband and their teenage son live in Morgantown with their cats, Perry and Kellin.