Farmer Marketing

Simple, inventive ways to increase the value of farm fresh products through direct marketing, internet marketing, and creativity.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Heirloom Tomatoes

Saturday was an exciting day for me at the Southeast Idaho Farmers' Market because for the first time this year I had an appreciable amount of all-natural, vine-ripened tomatoes to offer for sale. Of all the produce we grow, those juicy, red tomatoes are by far the most popular and most welcome after an entire winter of flavorless grocery store tomatoes. Of course there were a few questions about the variety, because everyone marvels at how early they are, and inevitably a few customers wonder if they are heirloom tomatoes. Given the recent spike in interest in heirloom varieties, I would like to chime in with my two cents on the heirloom tomato phenomenon.

What is an Heirloom Tomato?

The definition that I feel most accurately captures the essence of heirloom tomatoes is that they are the varieties that your parents and grandparents used to grow. I know that this isn't very specific, but I think the connotation of the term heirloom tomato suggests that it is old and has some sentimental value. Most talk about heirloom tomatoes also mentions the distinct flavor available from heirloom varieties. Also of note is the fact that heirloom tomato varieties are pure-bred, that means not hybridized, so that you could take a seed from the tomato, plant it, and get a plant that produced the same kind of fruit.

So if you are looking for heirloom tomato varieties and can't find them, what are all of those varieties in your local greenhouse or nursery? Hybrids most likely. And why are there so many varieties of hybrids? I'll try to give a short answer. First, a hybrid is two varieties being cross-pollinated to produce a third distinct variety with different, hopefully better, characteristics than the parent plants. This process has been undertaken for three purposes:
  • Earlier and larger yields
  • Disease resistance
  • Patent protection
Early Girl is a famous hybrid variety. The hybridization is what led to the earliness of the fruiting. Also, hybrids have been bred for resistance to disease. That is what all the letters behind the variety name mean, like Early Girl VF. Patent protection refers to the fact that once a new variety is created, the seed company can patent it and be the exclusive seller of the variety. The patent is further protected by the fact that seeds from hybrid plants do not produce the same type of plant as the parent because of genetics that I won't discuss here. This translates into more money for companies that own popular varieties, like Burpee's famous Big Boy variety.

Why Heirloom Tomatoes?

I personally don't advocate either heirloom tomato varieties or hybrid tomato varieties. However, I believe heirloom tomatoes are an excellent choice for growers who are emphasizing an all-natural approach. Heirloom varieties have been around a long time. You can save seeds from year to year to reduce costs. Most of all, heirloom tomatoes are gaining popularity at nearly the same pace as organic produce. So in conclusion, I believe that heirloom tomatoes are here to stay and I'm interested in hearing your comments on successes/failures with heirloom tomato varieties vs. hybrid tomato varieties.