Born Again: Rebirth of the Jersey Tomato

Everyone pays lip service to the juicy Jersey tomato. Now three Rutgers scientists are close to recreating the greatest Jersey tomato of them all.

Generation Next: At Rutgers’s Snyder Research Farm, Peter Nitzsche cradles a TRW 3002a seedling, one of the variants from which will come the reborn classic Rutgers tomato.
Photo by Jennifer Pottheiser

On a sunny afternoon in May, the contenders, each plant about 4 inches tall, were growing in a greenhouse in a rural stretch of Cumberland County. A hanging thermometer said the temperature indoors had reached 85 degrees.

“This is about as warm as you want it to get,” said Tom Orton, the plant breeder here at the Rutgers Agricultural Research and Extension Center farm in Upper Deerfield, looking protectively over his seedlings. Orton has a PhD. in plant genetics and tends to talk like a scientist, but he can speak tenderly, almost anthropomorphically, about tomatoes.

As in: “Above the high 80s, tomatoes don’t like it. Around 90, they just sit there and wait for it to get cooler. But if you keep water on them, they get over it.”

As in: “Tomatoes don’t take the weekend off,” so each Saturday and Sunday Orton drives 30 miles round trip from his home in Salem County to water them.

It’s not yet clear which of these 250 little plants in their plastic trays, now starting to branch into the familiar serrated leaves, will triumph in this genetic competition to recreate the Rutgers tomato, touted as the greatest Jersey tomato of all. Orton and his two compadres on this quest have been diligently hybridizing and selecting for four years. These are F-6’s, the sixth generation selected from the two parents Orton began cross-pollinating in 2011.

“These will go out in the field in about two weeks,” Orton said. He noticed a double (two seedlings growing in one plastic cell) and gently dug one out, replanting it in an empty slot. The plan was to truck the seedlings to Rutgers’ Snyder Farm in Hunterdon County, where they’d grow to maturity.

“We’ll start harvesting in mid-July and then evaluate the heck out of them,” Orton went on. Which meant that he and Jack Rabin, who would deserve the title State Tomato Guru if there were one, and Pete Nitzsche, the Morris County extension agent, will look at every aspect of their recreated classic tomato: the size and shape of the fruit; the smoothness of its skin and whether it develops scars or cracks; the leaves and whether they provide enough shade to prevent unappetizing white patches called sunscald; the tomato’s resistance to insects and diseases; and most crucially, its flavor.

They’ll give each of the top five contenders—siblings with subtle genetic differences—composite scores. They’ll fold in the opinions of the tomato-loving public, too, which is invited to the Open House and Great Tomato Tasting at Snyder Farm on August 27. It’s the public, after all, that has complained for years that Jersey tomatoes don’t taste the way they used to, and Nitzsche hopes at least a hundred visitors will join in the blind taste test.

Then Orton will grow another generation of the plants deemed most desirable. Finally, in 2016, when Rutgers University celebrates its 250th anniversary, the triumvirate plans to unveil the, um, fruit of their long labor. They might call the hybrid the Rutgers250 or Rutgers Rediscovered or maybe the RetroRutgers—because while other tomatoes bearing the name Rutgers are still sold, they probably bear little resemblance to the 1934 original these guys have been painstakingly working to recreate.

Whatever they name it, this tomato will be the latest and potentially greatest in an ongoing effort to allow home gardeners and farmers-market shoppers—and who knows, maybe locavore-minded foodies in neighboring states—to revisit the golden age of Jersey tomatoes, a time before interstate highways, before a North Carolina guy named Randy Gardner, before “plastic” and “tomato” started routinely appearing in the same sentence.

The neo-Rutgers tomato will be tart and toothsome and….well, listen to Rabin: “You’re on your way home from the Shore, you stop at a farm market, you buy some tomatoes,” he says. “The car smells great. You grab a saltshaker and take a bite. You take another bite. Ahhhh…”

It will be like that.

To get to this 305-acre Rutgers farm, you drive past peach orchards, fields of spring spinach and irrigation rigs that resemble huge wings on wheels. Despite pressure to build on farmland, New Jersey still ranks fourth in the nation in value of agricultural products sold per acre.

You might call this region the state’s Tomato Belt. “In South Jersey, we are blessed with excellent, rich, alluvial soils that tomatoes seem to really love,” says Orton, a large, lumbering 63-year-old wearing a faded polo shirt, jeans and maroon sneakers. “The right pH. The right mix of silt and sand particles. A nice loam.” All that and a huge aquifer just below the surface, he adds.

“Long, frost-free growing seasons, nestled between the Delaware Bay and the river and the Atlantic Ocean,” chimes in Rabin, 58, the associate director of farm programs, based on the New Brunswick campus, who has driven to the Deerfield farm to check out various projects. “You can mature tomatoes a lot earlier and continue them a lot later.” Rabin was Orton’s grad student years back at the University of California, Davis, but he grew up around here, in tiny Rosenhayn.

When these guys talk about the golden age, they’re referring to a period from the early 1950s through the mid-1980s. Before then, Jersey tomatoes were what we now call heirlooms, a category that plant scientists view with disdain. “They had all kinds of horticultural defects,” Rabin sniffs. Early tomatoes cracked, turned to mush in heavy rain, fell prey to fungus and other diseases. “Farmers had to throw a quarter to a half of them into the woods because they were crap.”

But after World War II, modern plant genetics, promoted by scientists at Rutgers and elsewhere, led to hybrid tomato plants that resisted blight and bugs and produced lots of big, round, red fruit that ripened on the vine and could be trucked to nearby processing plants. Those tomatoes had the moderate sugar and high acid content (plus a complex brew of volatiles, chemical compounds that add to the allure) prized for juice, ketchup and soup. Some also sold at farm-stands and supermarkets. Tart, sweet and tender, they are the Jersey tomatoes that induce nostalgia.

What happened to them? Blame interstate highways, which enabled produce to be trucked longer distances more quickly, but also encouraged plant scientists to produce firmer hybrids with thicker skins and interior walls (and less taste) for improved “shippability.” “That’s when produce ceased to be local,” Orton says glumly.

Also blame North Carolina State University, where now-retired breeder Randolph Gardner developed high-yielding, crack-resistant hybrids that became Eastern U.S. standards by the 1990s. Orton and Rabin protest any suggestion that Gardner’s photo should be mounted on dartboards across the Garden State (He’s a nice guy! He was only producing what the industry wanted!) but his emphasis on firmness and cosmetics took a major toll on flavor.

It didn’t help that Gardner bred tomatoes for growing conditions in North Carolina, not New Jersey. Or that production largely shifted to Florida, California and Mexico, where supermarket tomatoes are picked green and gassed into ruddiness with ethylene, then refrigerated for shipping.

For years, therefore, Rutgers agriculturists have been hearing complaints that supermarket tomatoes are hard and tasteless, and that even farm-stand tomatoes seem diminished compared to the ones people fondly remember. But then, Rabin hypothesizes, tomatoes have become “sort of a whipping boy,” a stand-in for every disappointing thing modern agribusiness has done to the food we eat.

“And people react viscerally, because they remember tomatoes in the summer,” Orton adds. “Why did they have to change?” Maybe, the Rutgers folks thought, they could rewrite botanical history and bring back those long-lost varieties—perhaps even improve them.

The campaign acquired an impressive name, Rediscovering the Jersey Tomato, that suggests a significant investment, maybe an office, a staff.

No. This isn’t California, where agricultural associations have marketing budgets; we’re not going to see dancing Claymation tomatoes on TV. Back in 2007, Rutgers’s New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station provided a one-time $8,000 loan, since repaid, to produce seed. Otherwise, the rediscovery essentially amounts to these three guys, who thought it would be cool to breed old-time tomatoes anew and wangled time from their regular jobs to do it.

Their first resurrected classic was the Ramapo. Developed at Rutgers in 1968 and known for its succulence and shapeliness, the Ramapo disappeared from commercial production in only about a decade. But the agriculture professor who’d bred it had retained some seeds after he retired, so the team only had to tinker for a year or so before reintroducing the Ramapo, to much media fanfare, in 2008.

In a survey of 1,200 gardeners who grew it that first year, nearly three-quarters said the Ramapo met or exceeded their expectations of “what a Jersey tomato should taste like.”

But the Ramapo, frustratingly, doesn’t ripen until August. So the following year, the team re-reintroduced the Moreton, a 1953 variety that matures in July. “A tomato of moderate sweetness and a discernible acidity,” Rabin calls it. “You get this tingly-ness on your gums.” Last year brought the KC-146, which dates to 1956 and was developed by and grown for Campbell Soup.

Together, those new-old varieties have established a beachhead among home gardeners. More than 10,000 customers have bought mail-order seeds from Rutgers, and greenhouses across the state sell seedlings. Some farmers sell the tomatoes themselves in season. Alstede Farms, for instance, will harvest about 2,500 pounds of Ramapos this year for sale at its Chester market and at 11 weekly farmers’ markets from Morristown to Elizabeth. “It’s a great-tasting tomato,” says Kurt Alstede.

But the Rutgers tomato is different—not merely a local favorite, but an international superstar. Rutgers professor Lyman Schermerhorn spent six years crossbreeding and field testing before releasing it in 1934, when about 36,000 New Jersey acres were planted with tomatoes. (Today’s total: around 4,100.) “Through the 1940s and early ’50s, it grew to become the number one tomato in the world,” Rabin says.

It reigned for about two decades. Then, on top of interstates and Randy Gardner, came farm-labor shortages in California. Growers there turned instead to the newfangled mechanical harvester, and “that pretty much drove the Rutgers out of the market,” Orton says. “It couldn’t be mechanically harvested. It was too soft.”

Because Schermerhorn encouraged farmers to continue developing it, anything now called a Rutgers tomato is like a document photocopied too many times. How close is it to the original, with what its inventor called “sparkling red color” and “pleasing flavor”? Impossible to know. “We wanted to go back to the original seeds and retrace Schermerhorn’s steps,” Orton says.

That took some doing. Schermerhorn’s notes showed that the Rutgers was a cross between a familiar heirloom, the Marglobe, and a JTD. “We knew what a Marglobe was,” Rabin says. “We didn’t know what a JTD was.”

Sometimes, fortune smiles on the scrappy plant scientist. At a 2011 event with Campbell Soup executives, Rabin mentioned the quest to re-breed the Rutgers tomato and learned that the JTD was a Campbell variety. (Historic footnote: Chemist John T. Dorrance, nephew of the Campbell cofounder, invented condensed soup in 1897.) At Campbell’s experimental farm in Davis, California, an archivist had preserved historic seeds in a temperature-controlled vault.

The year after that serendipitous encounter, Campbell restructured and sold the Davis facility. Had the team dallied, they might never have located seeds from the Rutgers’s parent plants. But Campbell agreed to send small manila packets of JTD and Marglobe seeds.

Growing successive generations in fields and greenhouses and selecting for desirable characteristics, Orton winnowed the contenders from several hundred plants in the second generation (called F-2, as in “filial”) to 16 selections in the fourth generation to five now. One will become—ta-da!—the real Rutgers tomato reborn. It will have many of the qualities contemporary farmers and gardeners value, but it will taste like summer.

“I think they’re terrific,” says Orton. “We’ve got something here.”

And what if the Rutgers or the Ramapo begins to catch on in food circles? If some influential chef—a Thomas Keller, a Bobby Flay, a Scott Anderson—starts ballyhooing them on his menu: salad of sliced Rutgers tomato with burrata, drizzled with extra virgin olive oil and aged balsamic vinegar, garnished with organic basil? Might that not create a small but intense wave of demand? These varieties are still too soft to travel long distances, but you could truck them, carefully, within a reasonable radius: New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, maybe Boston or D.C.

“They’d have to be bubble-wrapped on the bottom, and people would have to spend a fair amount more for them, but it could be done,” says Greg Donaldson, who grows Ramapos for sale at Donaldson Farms in Hackettstown and the farmers market in Westfield. “Maybe the Rutgers will be the one that takes off.”

Maybe. Meanwhile, consider this: By 2016, New Jersey gardeners and farmers will be able to grow the Rutgers, the ultimate in nostalgic tangy tomato-ness. But the team’s work may not yet be done.

“People are equally unhappy,” Jack Rabin points out, “about cardboard strawberries.”

Paula Span writes The New Old Age blog for the New York Times and teaches journalism at Columbia University.

Orton’s winnowing
What they think of it
Where sold and grown Alstede and Donaldson
Next: strawberries

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