What Makes a Good Tomato?

IMG_0006It’s time we had an honest discussion about tomatoes.

I can talk up kale and chard as much as I please, but what folks really want in their CSA shares is lots of fresh, flavorful tomatoes. CSA farmers can screw up pretty much everything else, but if they routinely can’t grow tomatoes, they should probably find another vocation.

And this passion for tomatoes is for a good reason. The red round things sold as tomatoes in your typical megamart are a pale, degraded, deranged copy of an actual tomato. Once you’ve had a real tomato, there’s no going back.

Usually when people think about CSA tomatoes, they are thinking about heirloom tomatoes. These old, open-pollinated varieties were bred for characteristics like color, flavor, and regional adaptation, rather than mere packability, truckability, and long shelf life, as most modern hybrid tomatoes are. This is why many people, including some CSA farmers, reject hybrid tomatoes in favor of heirlooms. But there are tradeoffs with heirlooms. They are trickier to grow. They are sometimes more prone to pests and diseases. Often they are less productive than modern hybrids.

Now, here’s a secret: There are some really good hybrid tomatoes out there. Not heirloom good, sure, but pretty good nonetheless. And they have bred-in resistances to diseases and a vigor that provides higher yields. And the way I grow them — in nutrient-dense soil, picked ripe, and delivered promptly — these tomatoes are still worlds apart from your typical grocery store fare. In other words, I am not going to look down my nose at a big, juicy, red tomato just because it doesn’t have the correct pedigree.

I’ve always included these good, red tomatoes in my line-up, augmented with some of the fabulous heirlooms out there. But now here is a twist in this story: Plant breeders are developing hybrid tomatoes with heirloom characteristics. When I first heard about these from another grower, I was resistant to the idea. After all, if farmers like us don’t grow heirlooms, who will? But after further consideration, I am intrigued. Here’s why:

One of the heirlooms I often grow is Cherokee Purple, a very lovely and tasty specimen. But it has its problems. The first fruit set is reliably great, but afterwards. quality declines sharply. The fruit cracks, splits, and rots on the vine. The plant succumbs to disease and is finished long before the season ends — at least that’s my experience. And since tomatoes are so time- and resource-intensive, at a certain point it’s more cost-effective for me to take a five-gallon pail of dollar bills out into the field and set fire to it.

So if there are tomato varieties out there that combine the vigor and durability of hybrids with the color and flavor of heirlooms, this is a big deal for a grower like me. So this year I am growing a few of them, as well as their heirloom counterparts, and then we’ll see. Will Martha Washington measure up to Grace Lahman? Can Margold go toe to toe with Gold Medal? How does Chef’s Choice compare to Valencia? We are going to find out this summer, together.