For more than two decades, Dr. Tom Toyama quietly got on with his work as stone fruit breeder at Washington State University.
Though no variety was released during his tenure from 1963 to 1985, his work has had a significant impact on the Northwest cherry industry. Ten of his cherry selections have been patented and released since he retired.
Interviewed by Good Fruit Grower in 1999, Toyama said he was surprised by the success of his selections and he had horticulturist Dr. Ed Proebsting, who evaluated them after he left, to thank for that.
“The reason I sat on them for so long was that I was never quite sure whether they were worth naming because in different years they performed differently,” he said. “Some years, they were not so good; other years, not so bad. I often wondered—I guess all plant breeders do—why I selected the varieties in the first place.”
Toyama was never one to rush into things.
He grew up in North Dakota and served in the U.S. Army during World War II. He was discharged while in Japan and stayed on to work as a translator for four years. Under the GI Bill, he was able to return to the United States and go to college, with free tuition and books. He wasn’t sure what he wanted to study, and considered geology.
“I was undecided, as is my nature,” he said.
He took a basic science course at the University of Minnesota, then earned his bachelor’s degree and doctorate there.
“I spent seven years as a graduate student in Minnesota,” he recalled. “I would still be a graduate student if someone had not say, ‘Finish or else!’ So I finished.”
In Prosser, he devoted long hours to his projects. One spring, he spent 42 days continually at work, almost day and night. Sometimes, he would sleep out in the field; others, in the research center’s coffee room. He once slept in the car.
Breeding stone fruits is a much slower process than breeding pome fruits, he explained, as there is only one seed per fruit and only a very small percentage germinate.
He had no idea that his crosses would ultimately generate so much interest. “I was not a publicity hound,” he said. “I liked to go out in the field and work by myself.”
Toyama was named Cherry King by the Northwest Cherry Institute in 1990.