Jun 19, 2014
North Carolina breeder continues to release cultivars

Randy Gardner, a professor emeritus and tomato breeder for North Carolina State University (NCSU), has something more he will be releasing to the general public soon. Gardner has released such popular cultivars in the past 33 years as Mountain Pride, Mountain Spring, Mountain Fresh and Fletcher, plus the newly released, highly disease-resistant Mountain Merit from Bejo Seeds and the new Mountain Majesty from Harris Moran, which Gardner particularly likes. He also has provided breeding material for other popular cultivars including Amelia, Mountain Majesty, Crista round tomatoes, Smarty Grape and Plum Crimson Roma.

“Randy has had more impact on the tomato industry in the Eastern U.S. and in North Carolina than any other breeder,” said Michael Hannah of Harris Moran.

Gardner is working on some new cultivars, including two new grape tomatoes with excellent eating and disease packages. The newest releases are tomato grapes Mountain Honey from Harris Moran and Mountain Vineyard from Bejo Seeds. Mountain Honey has good flavor and is a moderate indeterminate with higher sugar content than some of the other grapes on the market. Mountain Vineyard has the crimson gene for outstanding color and picks without a stem. For best results, both need to be pruned to one sucker below the first fruit cluster.

“I don’t think we teach well enough how to prune some of these different varieties,” Gardner said. “They have different requirements for best results, including a program on pruning and fertilizing at the proper time.”

Gardner started growing tomatoes at his family’s farm in Virginia. He had his own patch when he was 9 years old. That firsthand experience gave him knowledge of what the tomato industry needs.

“It’s hard to find breeders today with the background working in the industry from the ground up,” said Gardner, who earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees studying horticulture at Virginia Tech, and earned his doctorate in pomology at Cornell University, with an emphasis on plant breeding and pathology.

Starting his career at NCSU, Gardner first released varieties from California and Florida programs for size and tolerance to cracking. He tried to breed for disease resistance and tolerance of North Carolina’s unique growing conditions. He worked mostly on his own, learning as he went, but he collaborated with breeders from California and Florida.

“I took the best characteristics of both Eastern and Western cultivars for breeding lines for the region,” Gardner said. “One of the early popular tomatoes in Florida was Floridade. It was firm but didn’t have the size and flavor for the vine-ripe market. The California material had size but no resistance to cracking.”

Gardner combined the best of both worlds to create his unique cultivars. The trend in Florida has been mainly mature green, but there is increasing interest in vine-ripes. The new Tasty Lee from Bejo is a tomato developed by Jay Scott at the University of Florida, marketed with a special label to create brand loyalty. Gardner said Mountain Majesty is also being labeled to create a fan base and varietal identity, much like what’s done with apples.

Gardner released Mountain Pride in 1981, Mountain Spring in 1987, Mountain Fresh not long after that, Fletcher and Mountain Glory with TSWV in the early 2000s, Crista about the same time and Mountain Merit three years ago. Mountain Merit from Bejo has a strong disease package, with TSWV, F-3, early and late blight. Mountain Merit has been designated an All American Selection. The only downside is that it is about a 10-ounce tomato, slightly smaller than Mountain Fresh. Meanwhile, Mountain Majesty is one of the last hybrids Gardner has developed. He says it has really nice flavor and has the crimson gene for improved color.

“I think it can become important for the industry,” he said.

Recently, Gardner has focused on improving heirlooms. He is looking at developing varieties that have nice appearance, less fasciation (a lobed shape), more disease resistance, increased firmness to reduce cracking and less of a core while retaining the flavor, and eating quality. That is a big task, but Gardner has already come up with some potential winners, he said.

Mountain Rouge is one example. This is a pink tomato with a Brandywine-pink background, less cracking, late blight and nematode resistance and less of a core than the old Brandywine, increased firmness and less fasciation, while retaining the great flavor of Brandywine.

He has tomatoes now with various stripes, crossed with a tomato with late blight resistance. He also is working on a mini-beefsteak. Some colors are also related to softness, which might be good for backyard growers but not for commercial growers. He is selecting for firmness and better disease packages in these types. He said multicolored specialty types can now be grown for the marketplace and increase demand and value.

He said he has been working with the inbreds for several years, and has just gotten to the point of developing hybrids. While some consumers, and even some small growers, eschew hybrids and even confuse them for GMOs, hybrid tomatoes have been around since the 1940s.

People don’t realize how much yield, quality and disease tolerance have improved for tomato growers who rely on hybrids. As for fears of GMOs and hybrids, Gardner said people don’t realize how much foreign DNA is taken in, even in the air they breathe. People who don’t want hybrids basically don’t completely understand the breeding process. They want to save their own seed and bypass the seed companies. Lots of people believe that everything in the supermarket, including vegetables, is a GMO. In fact, there are no GMO tomatoes on the market. The only GMO vegetable crops are a few squash cultivars and a handful of sweet corn cultivars.

One of Gardner’s frustrations is that university-bred cultivars are much slower to come to market than those released by seed companies. With molecular markers and better availability of germplasm, Gardner said new named varieties are coming to market much faster.

Still, Gardner believes the future is bright for the small, savvy tomato grower.

“Tomatoes in the Eastern U.S., with all the labeling on origin and increased demand for local, diverse production – I think we will see more specialty and locally grown tomatoes than before,” he said.

“We don’t see that many California tomatoes in the summer anymore,” he said. “We are now seeing more specialty types and hopefully more and more locally grown, and the start of branded product. If you sell something at the market, you want people to come back. If you buy tomatoes in the grocery store, you can’t necessarily get consumers to come back for more unless they are branded.”

Several of Gardner’s selections are being touted for high tunnels, including Mountain Fresh Plus and Mountain Majesty. Mountain Rouge would also be a good selection for the local market when the seed becomes available. Previously with heirlooms, growers had to pick their tomatoes as they turn to prevent cracking. With the heritage types like Mountain Rouge, you can pick them more closely to full color and improve the flavor, he said.

Kevin Hosey

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