Jul 21, 2009
New Jersey Rediscovering Flavorful Tomatoes

For 40 years now, people have been grumbling about tomato flavor – the lack of it. Whatever happened to those old-fashioned tomatoes that were tangy, juicy and delicious?

Conspiracy theories abound. It’s growers – they just want more, bigger, disease-resistant tomatoes and don’t care what they taste like. It’s retailers – they want a tomato that looks good and has long shelf life, and they don’t care what it tastes like, either. It’s shippers – they want a rock-hard tomato they can pick green and transport across the country. It’s breeders – they try to satisfy everybody except, apparently, the people who eat the tomatoes.

Consumers have been in rebellion for several years now. They began to search for those good, old-fashioned tomatoes. While people began to find tomatoes – heirlooms – with flavors they liked, the people who tried to grow them found out why they had been left behind in the first place:

Low yields. Rots and diseases. Cat facing and cracking. Green shoulders. Thin skins. Juice running out the bottom of the package and mold on top.

A few years ago, researchers at Rutgers University’s New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station and Extension specialists decided to take a hard look at the situation. They developed a project called “Rediscovering the Jersey Tomato.”

The project has several thrusts:

Find out the kind of tomatoes consumers like by asking them.

Get varieties consumers say are flavorful into the hands of growers.

Make sure flavor gets top billing in breeding new varieties.

The Rutgers’ scientists had reasons to use the word “rediscover.” The tomato is the state fruit of New Jersey – the Garden State – and breeders at Rutgers, nearly a century ago, helped make New Jersey tomatoes famous for their flavor. One variety – developed in the 1920s and named Rutgers – has gained near-heirloom status and is still widely planted by home gardeners.

Moreover, people remembered some of the old Rutgers varieties, like Ramapo, wondered where they went and wanted them back.

Rediscovery

One of the first steps in “rediscovery” was finding out whether consumers were, in fact, right in their complaints, or whether they were just being grumpy and suffering from an excess of nostalgic memory. To find out, the Rutgers scientists created tomato tastings – sort of like wine tastings – and invited people to tell them which tomatoes they liked best.

Rutgers tomato breeder Thomas Orton said they screened about 140 different tomato varieties, some of them heirlooms, some of them older varieties that had fallen out of use. They grew the tomatoes and invited people to gather and taste them.

These tastings are still going on.

The Rutgers team found several tomatoes that consumers rated as superior in taste, including such well-known, open-pollinated heirlooms as Boxcar Willie, Brandywine, Mortgage Lifter and Stulpice. But they also found several commercial hybrid varieties from the past that fared well, too.

“It appears that consumers really have been left out of the loop,” Orton said. “Breeders were going the wrong direction, choosing tomatoes that stood up to the rigors of packaging and distribution rather than focusing on nutrition and health and the eating pleasure of people.”

Starting in the 1960s, breeders focused on factors other than flavor, especially the need to design tomatoes to fit “the rigors of the distribution system.” They also responded to the labor crunch that developed after the Bracero program ended, when breeders developed tomatoes that could be machine-harvested. These tomatoes were meant for processing, not fresh eating, Orton said, but many of their firmness genes found their way into fresh-market varieties.

Some of the genes that make tomatoes easier to handle and ship are anti-ripening genes that actually prevent flavor from developing, Orton said.

The Rutgers folks also found that “any kind of vine-ripened tomato will taste better than one harvested before it is ripe,” he said.

What happens on the vine isn’t fully understood, but it appears that sugars and acids accumulate in tomatoes first and that “the volatiles” that deliver intense flavor and aroma come later. People with backyard gardens or who have access to tomatoes fully ripened on the vine are always going to be able to have a more flavorful tomato than the supermarket shopper, he said.

It wasn’t just the old, open-pollinated heirlooms that rated well on flavor. Apparently, hybrid tomatoes that Rutgers and other tomato breeders developed back in
“the old days,” before the shift in emphasis toward shelf life and ship-ability, could be pretty good, too.

One was the Ramapo hybrid tomato, developed at Rutgers and released in 1968 by now-retired breeder Bernard Pollack. This medium-sized tomato was prized by gardeners for its flavor and its excellent fruit quality, reliability and productivity. It was resistant to cracking and to common diseases.

“Despite a loyal following for this tasty and well-performing tomato, eventually commercial seed companies stopped supplying the seed to make way for higher-yielding, modern varieties,” according to the Rutgers Experiment Station Web site.

Ramapo seed was not available for many years, but Rutgers continued receiving requests for the popular tomato.

So, in 2008, a special effort was made to reintroduce Ramapo and make seeds available. Seeds from the parent inbred lines were found and crosses made to get new seed.

The Rediscovering the Jersey Tomato project also led to restoration of another tomato, the Moreton F-1 hybrid. Rutgers scientists, in cooperation with Eastern Seed Services and Harris Seeds, restored this old-time, early maturing, tasty Jersey tomato variety that had been long absent from the market.

“Though not sufficiently firm for commercial shipping, Moreton F-1 has been regarded as a connoisseur’s favorite,” according to the Web site. “Moreton makes a good earlier maturing garden companion while waiting for Ramapo to mature and, like Ramapo, combines hybrid reliability with old-time taste.”

Growers can go to the Web site and find an order form to get seeds of these two varieties, which are described this way:

“Ramapo F1 Hybrid seeds – Mid to late season; resistant to cracking and verticillium and fusarium wilt. Semi-deter¬minate plants approximately 80 days to maturity. Medium-large sized fruit.”

“Moreton F1 Hybrid seeds – Early season, resistant to verticillium. Indeterminate plants mature in 70 days. Medium-large sized fruit.”

Consumer input

Peter Nitzsche is the county Extension agent in Morris County. He tells how he and several colleagues – Wesley Kline, Michelle Casella, William Sciarappa, William Tietjen, Jack Rabin, Cindy Rovins, Richard VanVranken, William Hlubik – have worked the last two years planting tomatoes and setting up consumer tasting events.

Tomato tastings are scheduled for Aug.12 at the Rutgers Agricultural Research and Extension Center in Upper Deerfield (Cumberland County) and Aug. 27 at the Rutgers Snyder Research Farm in Pittstown (Hunterdon County).

Part of the project includes identifying excellent-eating tomato varieties that were well-adapted to local growing conditions and commercially grown by New Jersey farmers back in the tomato “glory days” of the 1950s.

But another part is identifying high-flavor varieties for developing new varieties.

One tomato, BHN 589, is a commercial variety that scored higher than Ramapo in the consumer tastings. A bit firmer, Nitzsche thinks local commercial growers could successfully grow BHN 589 and get it into wholesale market channels.

Ramapo, along with many other varieties, will be available for tasting in August. For details, go to www.njfarmfresh.rutgers.edu/JerseyTomato.html. Information on how to purchase Ramapo and Moreton plants and seeds also is available on the Web page.

Rediscovering the Jersey tomato takes more than just bringing back the old varieties. Plant breeding is still important, but “improvement” can’t come at the expense of flavor.

In an article published on the Web site, Bernard Pollack, now retired and living in California, explained why many of today’s commercial varieties of red round tomatoes don’t carry the taste and texture of the old varieties.

“If you tasted Rutgers, Stokesdale, Earliana, Marglobe, Pritchard, Big Boy and Early Girl, they would all taste very much like Ramapo. I would expect this, since we plant breeders were all using germplasm from the same gene pool. We were looking for yield (disease resistance helped), maturity, quality and crack resistance, and all of these varieties and hybrids met at least one of these criteria. These were for the fresh-market tomatoes, not processing tomatoes. Yet, trends change and shipping quality, shelf life and hardness became the vogue. However, these modern plant breeders never got out in the field and tasted their product.”

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