Craig’s training as a chemist was instrumental to his success as a tomato expert following his retirement from the lab.
“I remember countless chemistry sets, electronic kits, and other science-based toys showing up under the Christmas tree throughout my early years,” Craig recalls his childhood growing up in Rhode Island, US. His interest in science continued through adolescence and he went on to study for a BA degree in chemistry, biology and maths at Rhode Island College.
The pharmaceutical industry
Craig completed a PhD in organic chemistry at Dartmouth College, New Hampshire. He then spent a year working as a post-doc at the University of Washington and went on to begin a job at SmithKline Pharma. He remained in the pharma sector for 25 years, working as a process chemist and moving from SmithKline to Glaxo after eight years. During his long and successful industrial career, he took on a variety of roles including pilot plant manager, project manager, business process change manager and internal consultant. Craig was always motivated by the challenge of process chemistry – finding cheaper, more efficient ways to make target molecules and ensuring that methods could be scaled to large quantities – but, more than this, Craig enjoyed managing staff and providing leadership and guidance to help them develop.
The Tomato Man
For most of his life, Craig has also had a passion for gardening. He recalls some of his earliest memories with his grandfather in the large garden behind his family home: “I would accompany him on his gardening tasks – coming face to face with spiders, smelling his amazing deep red strawberries and marvelling at the tall and colourful dahlias and rainbow of sweet peas.”
He began his ‘gardening major’ of tomato growing in 1986 when he learned about Seed Savers Exchange – a not-for-profit organisation dedicated to preserving heirloom plant varieties* through promoting the distribution and exchange of seeds. Since then, Craig has been involved in the Seed Savers Exchange initiative and spent 15 years selling heirloom tomato seedlings. However, it was after his retirement from pharma that his tomato empire really took off. He describes his current role as heirloom tomato expert and adviser, plant seller and breeder, garden writer and lecturer:
“I love the ability to plan my day, be my own boss and do things that lead to improvement and progress – whether it’s better tomatoes, a deeper understanding of issues such as disease or solving other gardening challenges.”
Craig has recently written a bestselling book, Epic Tomatoes, which gives advice on how to select and grow the best varieties of tomatoes. He wrote the book after encouragement from his wife, who he describes as a constant inspiration and guide in his life:
“I could never have accomplished what I have, and with such joy, without the 35 years of support from my best friend – my wife, Susan.”
One of Craig’s greatest passions is for developing new varieties of tomatoes and he describes his garden as being “more like a laboratory” where he runs multiple projects to produce new breeds. A few years ago, Craig co-led the Dwarf Tomato project which focused on creating large, colourful, heirloom type tomatoes that grow successfully in small spaces such as decks and patios. As a result of this project, 36 new varieties of tomatoes are now sold and dozens more are on the way. Craig describes the project as one of the most “interesting, fun and fulfilling” of his life and stresses that it would not have been possible without his scientific background.
In fact, Craig attributes a large part of his success as a gardener to his training as a chemist. “I call upon the basics of being a scientist – attention to detail, planning, understanding of doing controlled studies and the principles of process improvement – in pretty much all of my daily activities,” he explains.
“The ability to plan a research project, see it through to completion, record observations and draw appropriate conclusions is central to the success I’ve experienced throughout my gardening life.”
Advice for others
Craig’s advice to those setting out on a career in chemistry is to “study hard, learn the basics, and create a foundation on which your creativity can flourish.”
For Craig, the best thing about chemistry is the enjoyment and satisfaction of generating unique ideas. The joy of being able to design and carry out an experiment, with the reward of realising the results, is something he thinks should not be underestimated:
“There really is nothing like it. If it resonates with you and you really get it, you will have an approach to most everything in life that will serve you well.”
Words by Isobel Marr
Images courtesy of Craig LeHoullier
Published September 2015
* Hybrid tomato varieties are grown from seeds carried in a tomato created by hand crossing two parent varieties. Seeds saved from hybrids produce an unpredictable range of possibilities. Heirlooms are varieties with histories that pre-date 1950. They are stable (also known as open pollinated) and will produce pure-bred tomatoes from saved seeds.