Researchers seek new tomato; heirlooms still shine
The fastest way to get to Kiki Fontenot’s tomato patch on a recent Saturday involved a hayride.
It was the LSU AgCenter’s annual Garden Fest, and Fontenot and her multicolored heirloom tomatoes, along with a dazzling array of watermelon, were the stars of the taste-testing tent.
“It’s fun, but you’re really collecting data for us,” Fontenot said as she walked back from a field tour with a group of gardeners with a handful of tomatoes.
Fontenot and her researchers are looking for the next great tomato, the one that combines delectable tomato taste with yields high enough for farmers to profit. Her tomatoes have funny names like Mortgage Lifter, Hillbilly Potato Leaf, Thessaloniki and Black From Tula. Each has its own distinct flavor profile.
it turns out, there’s a lot of ways for a tomato to taste tomatoey. The Hillbilly Potato Leaf was sweet and fresh, with an almost lemony aftertaste while the Black From Tula had a deeper, smokier flavor. The Brandywines, both Pink and Red, were explosions of savory tomato flavor.
Fontenot said the Mortgage Lifter, which can churn out 2-pound tomatoes, seems to a good combination of flavor and high yield. She said one of her farmers said he could easily sell 200 pounds of Mortgage Lifters at his local farmers market.
Heirloom tomatoes are growing in popularity with consumers, both for their unusual looks and their bold flavors.
“There’s a nostalgic feeling, thinking back to their grandmother’s garden,” Fontenot said.
She said that, if you’re not inclined to garden, the best place to find heirlooms is the local farmers market, though some supermarkets have begun to carry local heirlooms.
Sunday Hanson, a master gardener from Tangipahoa Parish, and Michelle Mano are fans of heirlooms.
“Heirlooms have the harrumph,” Hanson said.
Hanson grows Aunt Ruby tomatoes that “produce like crazy,” along with a yellow cherry tomato called Golden Nugget and Louisiana favorite Creole tomatoes. She also grows a variety called Paul Robeson, named after the black opera singer.
“This seed was developed in Europe,” she said. “They named it for him because he was black.”
The AgCenter’s Kyle Huffstickler said less-experienced gardeners can grow tasty tomatoes in their yards. The AgCenter maintains a list of tomatoes that do well in Louisiana’s hot, humid climate, including varieties like Better Boy, Jet Star, Smarty, Amelia and Talladega.
“None of the heirlooms are resistant to wilts and viruses,” he said, which can be discouraging for novice tomato growers.
Huffstickler also said some grocery-store varieties may seem to lack in taste because of the season, growing conditions and the length of time they traveled. Some growers will select tomato varieties based on shelf life rather than on taste, he said.
“They’re picking them green and gassing them because they’re coming such distances,” he said. “The tomatoes you’re buying in the grocery may have been picked three weeks ago.”
Fontenot said tomatoes can be picked green, but they should be picked as close to the “breaker point” as possible.
“The breaker point is just when you start to see streaks of yellow or orange,” she said.
Tomatoes removed from the vine will continue to ripen in the kitchen and won’t be subjected to the dangers of birds, caterpillars or breaking and splitting.