Growers' Insights: What’s in a name?

True heirloom tomatoes aren’t always easy to find in today’s marketplace.

Published in FSD Update


Heirloom tomatoes are cherished as delectable, old-fashioned and wholesome, but not all growers produce heirlooms from humble seed. A traditional heirloom tomato is an open-pollinated (natural pollination, via insects or wind), non-hybrid, whose prized seeds produce a unique variety from the past. Described by one science writer as “feeble and inbred,” most young heirloom tomato plants benefit from being grafted to a stronger tomato plant.

Many modern, commercially grown varieties are “hybrids,” meaning they are intentionally pollinated and are from two different parent groups that can’t be replicated (i.e., as a mule is the unrepeatable offspring of a horse and donkey). Thus, hybrid seeds must be purchased every year. Some recent hybrids, developed for distinctive colors, tastes, shapes and sizes, resemble heirlooms to consumers.

The term “heirloom” originated in the 1940s, says Gary Ibsen, founder of the California-based organic heirloom tomato seed company TomatoFest. “Some new varieties are rediscovered family heirlooms introduced into the marketplace, and others are created by breeding two established heirlooms,” Ibsen says. His best-sellers include Black Krim, Black Cherry, Julia Child, Brandywine, Chocolate Stripes and Amana Orange.

Growing pains

Despite their celebrated taste, color and vintage appeal, heirlooms are typically fussy and greenhouse grown. “We get poor yields compared to other tomatoes, because heirlooms have little disease resistance,” says Teena Borek, an owner-operator, along with her son, Michael Borek, of Teena’s Pride, in Florida’s Miami-Dade County. At Teena’s Pride, heirlooms are grown using recirculated irrigation in the drier months of December through April.

“The University of Florida found that whitefly is the biggest predator,” Borek continues. “Reflective silver surfaces blind whiteflies, so our greenhouses are wrapped in silver. We also hang blue and yellow sticky squares inside the greenhouses as added protection.”

Grafting heirloom tomatoes improves disease resistance and weather hardiness, encourages higher yield and may prolong the growth period. Skip Paul, owner-operator of Wishing Stone Farm, in Little Compton, R.I., grafts as many as 7,000 heirlooms onto robust Maxifort—wild tomato rootstock plants from Thailand—“which gives us three times the yield,” he says.

Price points

Despite the growing challenges, heirlooms are market favorites. Tom Goeke, the sole proprietor of Herman’s Farm Orchard, in St. Charles, Mo., says his farm stand customers “go crazy for the delicious taste of heirlooms,” particularly Cherokee Purples and Brandywine Pinks. “They’re nice and solid,” Goeke says. “We let them vine ripen, and they keep well for seven days.”

Paul’s Striped German heirloom tomatoes, described as red with flares of yellow, sell for $5.50 a pound to chefs at top New England restaurants.

Borek’s popular varieties include Green Zebra, Cherokee Purple, Tangerine, Red Brandywine and Sun Golds, which are sold to CSA customers, local chefs and grocery stores. “In commercial markets, the middleman gets a lot of the profit,” Borek says. “We sell heirlooms for about a dollar a pound, but our vendors charge customers $4 to $6 a pound.” She says prices in her region have gone down the last several years, because “they’re growing heirlooms in Mexico now and competing with us. Commercial growers also have come out with hybrid varieties that resemble heirlooms and produce higher yields.”

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