Gardeners work to rescue Ivan, a tomato that is now returning the favor

Ivan_TomatoASHLAND — Jerry Schuerenberg went to Vietnam in 1968 and came back broken.

He didn't talk much about his year as a helicopter pilot during the war. Although his family could tell something was wrong, he never admitted he was hurting until he had a stroke. As he healed, Schuerenberg found peace in the humid space of his greenhouses.

There, he took particular care with a rare heirloom tomato known as Ivan, which had been cultivated for generations by his family.

Tending plants like this meaty tomato, the rare Schuerenberg family breed, became a way for him to heal. When he died in 2013, the tomato nearly died with him.

It wasn't until a group calling themselves Victory Gardeners picked up the pieces and Schuerenberg's hardy little tomato was plucked from almost-certain obscurity. The group's three members call themselves the Ivan Tomato Rescue Project.

With their project, the Victory Gardeners hope to sell Ivan tomato seeds and plants, rescue other dying varieties and inspire a little hope and healing. Collaborating with Schuerenberg's family, the project donates 10 percent of sales to programs that rehabilitate veterans by using agricultural therapy.

Schuerenberg's family lives in a white two-story house on a scenic piece of land in the rolling hills outside of Ashland. Four greenhouses, built at the edge of the front yard, were Jerry Schuerenberg's domain.

According to Becky Whitworth, one of his daughters, every morning the broad-shouldered field farmer would methodically pour a thermos of coffee, put on his faded tan overalls, pull a hat over his curly gray hair and lumber out the door.

Every day he watered and weeded his plants, transplanted them into larger containers, or just sat at his favorite picnic table with the family's German shepherd, Duchess.

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