If you were fifteen years old, living just outside of Sioux Falls, and you were faced with the choice to attend your district school way down in Lennox or raise the money to attend a private school in Sioux Falls, what would you do? When Tim Wasson was fifteen, he faced that choice. What did he do?
He took a $25 savings bond that he had won as a kid, cashed it out, and used the money to start a tomato business. “I ordered five-hundred tomato plants,” Tim recalls. “I raised those tomatoes, and then I sold them. I needed five hundred more dollars to make my tuition, and I made five hundred dollars! And I did that when I was fifteen. And from there I continued with horticulture– went to State, got a degree, all that stuff.”
As a young man, Tim worked in a local greenhouse. That’s where he met a young woman from Germany named Claudia. “I came as a foreign exchange student as part of an agricultural exchange program. We worked at the same place, we fell in love, and I’m still here!” Claudia beams.
Tim and Claudia continued horticultural work as a married couple. They worked in the greenhouse business for years, tending the plants and managing operations. They also started Tannenbaum Tree Farm outside of town. For many years they served hundreds of families every November and December. “People would come, we would give them a saw and they would go out and pick their own tree – there were twenty acres– they’d cut it down and bring it to us, and we’d measure it and shake it,” Claudia reminisces. “We had a little building, and they would come in and have hot cider and some cookies.”
“And Claudia would make fresh handmade wreaths,” adds Tim. “I like Christmas– the whole meaning, the symbolism… it means something to me, and to be able to express it through the plants, I really enjoyed it.”
Eventually, Sioux Falls grew in size and the decision was made to sell that land for development. It was a very hard to decision for the Wasson family. Tim explains: “It was a very emotional bond I had. I had spent twenty years working on those Christmas trees. Besides being a grower at the greenhouse, I spent all my time with those Christmas trees.” They sold and moved as many trees as they could, and some trees were used on the lots in the development, but many of the twenty-thousand trees had to be destroyed.
The Wasson family relocated to land further from Sioux Falls and started the Tannenbaum Tree Farm all over again. However, it takes years for Christmas trees to grow. What would they do in the meantime? “We knew we had to diversify,” says Claudia. And with their decades of experience in wholesale greenhouses, they’ve been able to do just that.
Now the Wassons sell just about any kind of plant you could want in South Dakota. Each week they bring herbs, vegetables, annuals, and perennials to The Prairie Farmers’ Market. Their hanging baskets and potted arrangements are especially beautiful, and the variety of tomato plants they have available is stunning. They even do custom work, fulfilling orders for varieties that one customer is looking for and can’t find anywhere else. Best of all, all their plants are grown without the use of pesticides or herbicides. “We use ladybugs. They come in a little sack, about 10,000 at a time, and the ones we don’t use right away we keep dormant in the refrigerator. Then about once a week we shake some out on the plants and they go to town.” The Wassons also protect their plants from disease by giving them the nutrients and the environment they need to stay healthy.
The Wassons sell both heirloom and hybrid tomatoes. What’s the difference? Heirloom varieties are older true-to-seed varieties. They have been cultivated in the open air long enough and carry enough dominant traits that their seeds will be true to the variety even if cross-polinated with other tomato varieties. By contrast, hybrid plants are the children of intentional pollination between two different varieties. Saving seeds from hybrid plants is a game of chance– many of these varieties’ traits won’t show up in the tomato grandchildren. Both heirloom and hybrid tomato plants are natural and non-GMO.
Hybrids are often a good choice for beginning gardeners. Claudia explains, “Some hybrids have merit. They can be disease resistant, easier to grow, and the tomato looks like they expect it to be.”
Tim adds, “We’ll trial some new varieties every year, and if we think they’re really good, we’ll sell the plants the next year.”
Even while Tim and Claudia look forward to starting their tree sales again, they’re also excited to continue working with a wide variety of plants. They enjoy carrying on the work of other horticulturalists who have developed varieties and techniques for specific situations, such as for growing fruit in the extreme climate of South Dakota. Some valuable varieties and techniques have been nearly lost as agriculture has become heavily influenced by large international companies and widespread commodity crops.
Preserving biodiversity is one reason they sell so many varieties of heirloom tomatoes. “A lot of vegetable seed companies are being bought out and then the seeds aren’t offered anymore. That’s why I want to save the open-pollinated varieties,” Tim passionately explains. “It’s something that our customers are looking for, but I would say it’s initially driven by the principle of the thing. I really don’t like the fact that a handful of companies can own most of the seed in the world. I find that quite… revolting.”
So the Wassons fill their greenhouses with a variety of healthy and beautiful plants, some of which you might not be able to find growing anywhere else. Claudia still makes wreaths every Christmas. And their Christmas trees keep growing, too. “There’s some about like this now,” Tim says, gesturing about four feet off the ground. “Those will probably be ready in just a couple years.” While a few years ago it might have looked like Tannenbaum Tree Farm was closing up shop, really they were just getting started.