Red, Ripe and Ready: The New Jersey Tomato

The Rutgers Agricultural Research and Extension Center will release the first batch of seeds for the new Rutgers tomato this month.

The new Rutgers tomato has a good balance of sweetness and tartness, and a slightly firm skin–as demonstrated by Thomas Orton, one of its creators.
The new Rutgers tomato has a good balance of sweetness and tartness, and a slightly firm skin–as demonstrated by Thomas Orton, one of its creators.
Photo by Ron Wyatt

If the bland pallor of winter’s supermarket tomatoes has you yearning for a taste of summer, take heart. This month, the folks at Rutgers Agricultural Research and Extension Center plan to release the first batch of seeds for the new Rutgers tomato (the search for which was covered by New Jersey Monthly in August 2014).

The creators of this new gem—Thomas Orton, a professor and specialist at the extension center; Jack Rabin, director of farm programs; and Morris County extension agent Pete Nitzche—anticipate it will exceed the juiciness, tang and sweetness of the original, which ruled the state from the late 1930s through the early ’60s. The finer qualities of that tomato were lost through generations of breeding for shelf life and ease of handling.

The search for the new tomato took five years, eight breeding generations and hundreds of plants. After the choices had been winnowed down to three, a final meeting was set for early November, bringing together representatives from Master Gardener organizations and extension agents to select the preeminent tomato. But as every parent knows, choosing among your children is no easy task, and the meeting ended with two contenders. At the time, Orton thought the team would release both versions, one for home gardeners, the other for small commercial growers. However, they were able to eliminate one of the remaining two, which scored slightly lower in consumer testing.

Plant breeders consider numerous factors when choosing a new variety, including taste, texture and disease resistance. But in making their final decision, Orton says, “flavor trumped everything.” The new tomato, he notes, “has a high overall level of flavor and a good balance of sweetness and tartness.” Its skin is a little firmer than that of the original Rutgers tomato, in deference to changing consumer tastes. “Most people prefer some firmness in the fruit so that it holds together on a sandwich,” Orton says.

The new tomato will go by the name Rutgers 250, a nod to this year’s 250th anniversary of the university. If you buy your seeds now (at njfarmfresh.rutgers.edu), you can celebrate the anniversary in your backyard this summer—with a delicious Jersey BLT.

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