A Look at a Few Select Varieties for Niche Marketing
The Tomato Magazine
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
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
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
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
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: email@example.com.
© 2006 Columbia Publishing
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