Bill McDorman started High Altitude Garden Seeds (which later became Seeds Trust) in 1984, while living in a small mountain town in Idaho. He hoped to offer varieties best suited to the cold, short growing season of the area. After five years of searching the globe for varieties that would grow well in his backyard, Bill embarked on a journey behind the Iron Curtain to Siberia. There he hoped to find the perfect short-season tomato.
While there, Bill and his then wife, Barbi, stopped at the Institute of Horticulture in Barnaul, Russia. The institute employed 20 full-time PhD staff members who bred vegetable varieties uniquely for Siberia’s limited growing season and harsh climate. “I asked if I could get some seeds… the rather stern director, this woman said ‘Nyet, no!’ that I had to have permission from Leningrad and St Petersburg, which was 5,000 kilometers away.”
Bill toyed with the idea of sneaking seeds out of the facility, but decided against it, realizing that if he was caught, he might be sent to a KGB work camp. After their tour of the facility was complete and Bill had boarded the bus to leave, he heard a knock on the bus window. Outside stood one of the PhD breeders named Galina, who motioned for him to slide open his window. Bill did, and as soon as the window was open, Galina removed a package from under her smock and passed it to him.
“I look down and she’s gone,” recalled Bill. Not sure of the number of laws that had just been broken in the exchange, Bill sat on the package until the bus was rolling. Only then did he dare peek inside, and discover that the clandestine package contained samples and lab notes for 60 different varieties of tomatoes from the breeding work at the facility. “It was a gift of unbelievable courage I will call it.”
Almost all of those varieties went on to strengthen Bill’s business. They include varieties like ‘Olga’s Round Yellow Chicken,’ ‘Mother Russia,’ and ‘Galina’s Cherry’ tomatoes. Bill sold High Altitude Seeds in 2011 and now tours the country with his wife, Belle, teaching Seed Schools. Seed Savers Exchange preserves over 40 varieties of vegetables that are from Bill and High Altitude Garden Seeds.