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Heirloom Tomatoes

A Look at a Few Select Varieties for Niche Marketing

The Tomato Magazine
August 2005

By Elaine Grassbaugh
Department of Horticulture and Crop Science
Ohio State University

The specialty vegetable market is a rapidly expanding niche in the produce industry. Defining and targeting a market for specialty produce must be considered before starting production. It’s a good idea to start small with any new varieties or species you are growing before investing large amounts of time, money, land and labor. Markets change quickly, and it’s essential that growers keep up with the latest trends. Markets can quickly become saturated with specialty items, and demand may change from year to year.
Unusual vegetables are showing up more often in supermarkets, farm markets, produce auctions and upscale restaurants. Consumers are eating more vegetables, due in part to the health benefits associated with vegetable consumption. As consumer tastes change, so does the list of cultivars being grown. One popular sector of this market is focused on specialty and heirloom tomatoes. Consumers are attracted to these unusual cultivars for a number of reasons. Heirloom varieties, mostly open-pollinated, are often favored for their taste and unique shapes and colors.

Maintaining genetic diversity is necessary since breeding programs are focusing more on hybrids with uniformity and other characteristics which make such cultivars favorable for long-distance transport. Older, traditional varieties have been maintained mostly by home gardeners, seed saver organizations and government germplasm centers but are becoming increasingly popular with commercial growers and seed companies.

Since these varieties have not been bred for long-distance shipping, they typically must be sold close to where they are produced, opening up a niche market that can be exploited by small growers, particularly those located near major metropolitan areas. Special handling of these more fragile cultivars needs attention, but specialty tomatoes can demand a high price in the market. For growers willing to develop special harvesting and handling techniques, specialty tomatoes offer colors, shapes and flavors that are an important part of today’s cuisine. Seed companies are offering an increasing number of heirloom varieties to commercial growers to meet this market demand from consumers.

Growers attempting to grow heirlooms and specialty vegetables should be cautious and start production on a small scale. Growing heirlooms and older germplasm can result in severe disease pressure since older cultivars do not possess the disease resistance common in newer tomato cultivars. Disease control practices will need to be adapted to accommodate this increased pressure from less common plant diseases.

Special growing techniques and attention to post-harvest handling are also necessary with heirloom tomatoes since most do not have an extended shelf life. These tomatoes need to be harvested at the breaker stage or just as they begin to color. Varieties will ripen fully at room temperatures in a few days (2-3). Some cultivars have thick, corky stems that make harvesting difficult. Pulling the stem at harvest may cause cracking of the fruit, so care must be taken when harvesting and detaching the fruit from the plant. It is suggested that the fruit be clipped from the plant with a short stem attached. Containers used for harvesting should be shallow and cushioned to avoid fruit stacking that leads to fruit cracking and damage. Fruit is best packed in single layer boxes for transport.

The following are among the heirloom cultivars that have been tested at Ohio State University:

Striped German: An indeterminate heirloom available from Johnny’s Selected Seeds. Striped German produces large (almost one pound each) bi-colored fruit (red and yellow) that mature in approximately 80 days. This ribbed-shoulder fruit is somewhat flat in shape. The bicolor interior is yellow with red center and marbling. This tomato has an excellent flavor and makes a beautiful presentation (due to the bicolor flesh and skin) when sliced or chopped.

This cultivar should be harvested somewhat immature (breaker stage) just as the fruit begins to color to avoid mushy, cracked fruit. Harvest is somewhat difficult since this variety has big, corky stems that will often pull away from the peel when trying to harvest at the mature to overmature stage. Marketable yield in a previous trial was 19.8 T/A with 8.4 T/A culls. Many fruit had radial growth cracks and catfacing which is common for this cultivar.

Banana Legs: A determinate heirloom from Totally Tomatoes that produces mature fruit in approximately 75 days. These abundant bright yellow, pointed, banana-shaped fruits measure four inches in length and are approximately two inches in diameter. This variety is a meaty “roma” type and low acid. Fruits can be harvested and are edible, in the green-to-yellow stage. This determinate variety requires no pruning or staking. Banana Legs can be used for fresh market or processing. Fruits are easy to harvest and fruit set is very concentrated. Marketable yield in one trial was 23.2 T/A with 6.7 T/A culled fruit.

Eva’s Purple Ball: An indeterminate heirloom variety available from totally Tomatoes. The pinkish-purple fruits mature in 80 days. Fruits are round with an average weight of five ounces. Fruits are somewhat difficult to harvest and stems are somewhat corky. Fruits are blemish-free but cracking will occur if the fruit is picked overmature. Again, this variety should be harvested somewhat immature. The true color of this unusual variety is pinkish-purple. Some anthracnose has been noticed in plots at early August. Marketable yield in one trial was 18.9 T/A with 7.9 T/A culled fruit which were mostly cracked due to heavy rains prior to harvest. This is a popular variety with home gardeners but with some special handling may be appropriate for the roadside or farm market outlets.

Wonder Light (specialty cultivar): This indeterminate variety is also available through Johnny’s Selected Seeds. This yellow, rounded, nippled tomato resembles a lemon in color, shape and size. With good taste and flawless appearance, Wonder Light can be used fresh for salads or processed for salsas and sauces. This unique variety is firm and meaty and seems to have a longer shelf life compared to other heirlooms. No disease problems, cracking, catfacing or fruit softening have been noted. Fruit is easy to harvest and pulls away from the stem easily. This is a nice, unique variety that would hold up to shipping. Marketable yields in the range of 19l3 T/A with culls weighing 3.0 T/A have been noted. This cultivar is worth trying either for fresh market or processing.

Pink Ping Pong: This novelty cultivar is available through Totally Tomatoes; it produces mature fruit in 85 days. This indeterminate cultivar yields pink, ping pong ball-sized fruits that are candy-sweet and pinkish-purple in color. Plants produce large cherry-type fruits two inches in diameter and are very uniform in size and shape. Fruits should be harvested before full maturity to extend shelf life. Pink Ping Pong can be used for eating fresh in salads or for snacks. Marketable yields are in the 17.4 T/A with 3.3 T/A culled fruits. This one is definitely worth trying if your markets demand unique tomatoes in unusual colors and sizes. Mixes well with other cherry types or larger tomatoes.

Tigerette Cherry (specialty cultivar): Available from Stokes Seeds, Tigerette Cherry is an unusual red and yellow-striped oval to round fruit on unique small, compact plants that have yellowish-green ornamental foliage. Average fruit size is approximately 2 ¾ inches in diameter and approximately .07 lbs. Although the outer skin is striped, the fruit interior is solid red with a good tomato flavor. Plant population could be increased to improve yield. Past trials have shown plant susceptibility to Septoria leaf spot but no visible damage to the fruit. The unique compact plants make harvest difficult. Past trials have produced 8 T/A with culled fruit weighting 2 TD/A.

Lemon Boy: This is an indeterminate variety that produces 6- to 7-ounce globe-shaped fruits of a true lemon-yellow color. This variety matures in approximately 72 days. Marketable yields in the Columbus and Hillsboro areas are in the 24.1 T/A and 19.1 T/A areas, respectively. Blossom-end rot and Bacterial speck have shown up in some trails. Overmature fruit will begin to turn orange and soft; best to harvest this variety when the fruits are a true bright yellow.

Italian Gold (specialty cultivar): A new determinate roma-type hybrid cultivar with beautiful golden-orange skin and flesh. This variety is extremely meaty with a compact seed cavity. Italian Gold has excellent cooking quality and makes unusual sauces and salsas. It is bred to be high in pectin for a richer, thicker sauce. For unique whole or diced canned or frozen product, this variety has been in demand. Marketable yields in the Columbus and Hillsboro area have been in the 33.5 T/A and 27.7 T/A areas, respectively.

Green Zebra: This unusual variety produces small (2-4 oz) fruits on vigorous indeterminate vines. Skin color at maturity is bright green with darker green stripes. Interior fruit color is solid green with a “real” tomato taste. When overripe, fruits begin to turn orange. Fruits mature in about 78 days.

Sweet Million and Sweet Gold (specialty cultivars): Both cultivars are indeterminate and require pruning and staking. Sweet Million is a red cherry type; Sweet Gold is a yellow cherry tomato. Both cultivars are indeterminate and require pruning and staking.

Yellow Pear: This variety is a small fruited, yellow pear-shaped tomato. Yellow Pear is an open-pollinated, indeterminate cultivar that requires pruning and staking. It produces firm, thick skinned fruits on wild growing plants.

Editor’s note: The material here has been condensed from a previous work by Elaine Grassbaugh. For more information, contact her at the Department of Horticulture and Crop Science, Ohio State University, 2021 Coffey Rd., 303 Kottman Hall, Columbus, OH 43210; phone: (614) 292-3858; fax: (614) 292-7162; e-mail: grassbaugh.1@osu.edu.

© 2006 Columbia Publishing

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