Linda Benedict, Morgan, Johnny W.
The fascination with heirloom tomatoes has some backyard growers willing to give up the qualities that brought improvement to hybrid varieties in exchange for old-fashioned flavor.
“I think people tend to associate the tomatoes with the ones maybe their grandparents grew when they were young, and they believe the flavor is just better,” said LSU AgCenter gardening specialist Kiki Fontenot. Heirloom tomatoes have slowly been phased out of the market because the new hybrid varieties out-compete them. They are often misshapen and offcolor, which are characteristics that make them hard to produce for today’s market.
For the past 50 years or so, breeders have worked to overcome these deficiencies by developing hybrid varieties more acceptable to today’s shopper. “With the hybrid varieties, a grower may be able to make 30-40 pounds of tomatoes per plant, where you would do well to make 10 pounds with the heirloom varieties,” Fontenot said.
One of the problems with hybrids is they are often picked green. Then gas is applied to force them to turn red. And then they have to be firm for shipping. The tomatoes are artificially ripened, so the flavor is often not there, Fontenot said.
“I think people associate hybrid with tomatoes from the grocery store,” Fontenot said. “They sometimes don’t have the flavor of those from the garden, but it really is a matter of opinion. Everybody’s taste buds are different.”
The real heirloom tomato growers say there are certain requirements that must be met to be called heirloom, and the main criterion is the tomato has to have at least a 40- to 50-generation history, Fontenot said.
People are looking for that old-time tomato flavor, but there is a trade-off, said Jimmy Boudreaux, retired LSU AgCenter horticulturist. “The problem is they won’t hold up for commercial growers.”
Heirloom tomatoes tend to be softer, and they have to be used soon after they ripen.
“We grew heirloom tomatoes in our research plots this year because of the high interest from backyard growers,” Fontenot said. “But they are not varieties that we will spend much time on because we’ve been breeding for the hybrid traits that just aren’t available with heirlooms.”
(This article was published in the summer 2012 issue of Louisiana Agriculture magazine.)
The LSU AgCenter and the LSU College of Agriculture