On the Side | The machine that ate the Jersey tomato

The legendary flavor of the Jersey tomato was in short supply at a Cumberland County tasting.

BRIDGETON, N.J. - If you cut to the right off Northville Road north of here, not far past the Seabrook Buddhist Temple and the Rutgers research center where a tomato tasting was in progress earlier this month, you found yourself face-to-face with the sort of hard-core agriculture best practiced behind the curtain.

Once upon a time, this stretch of Cumberland County gave rise to the state's largest farm, the province of one C. F. Seabrook, generally credited - for better and worse - with industrializing New Jersey agriculture.

Guidebooks today recount without comment his introduction of overhead irrigation; mechanization; time clocks for farm workers; cold storage; and the farm's liberal use, during the labor shortage of World War II, of interned Japanese pickers (which explains the residual Buddhist temple) to harvest its crops.

By the 1950s, two million packages of frozen peas and limas and other vegetables were coming out of Seabrook daily, evidence of New Jersey's agricultural muscle before the produce world tilted south and then west.

But the factory farm didn't leave entirely, and on the day of the tomato tasting - around the corner and just beyond the neatly pruned peach orchards - fields were being picked by a technique known as "destructive harvesting."

A mammoth blue tractor draped in forbidding chains was chewing across the fields like a locust, uprooting tomato plants, combing off the fruit, disgorging stems and leaves out the back end, and sending hardball tomatoes up a chute into flanking flatbed trucks fitted out with huge containers.

All that was left at the end of a row was a cloud of dust, as if someone had mowed the grass right out of the lawn.

These were not meant to be white-tablecloth tomatoes, of course. They'll be canned, or crushed for sauce, or bottled by processors.

But it was this very double-whammy of mechanization (which required tougher tomatoes), and the imperatives of the shipping and processing industry - the Campbells, Heinzes and Hunts - that spelled the beginning of the end of the flavor of the Jersey tomato.

No one argues the point anymore. The tastelessness is too apparent, except in the boutique and heirloom varieties. Scientists here busied themselves instead with mea culpas.

Jack Rabin, an associate director of the center, said his training had taught him to focus on plants for leafing that adequately shaded the fruit from sunburn, for fruit that hung just so for ease of harvesting, for good yields and disease-resistance and freedom from defects: "We never brought tasters into the picture."

They were here now, sampling tubs of cubed tomatoes set out under pavilion tents where the temperatures climbed toward 98 degrees. But they weren't dancing in the aisles.

The Early Girl's skin seemed more fitting for an older gal. The Jetstar that has legendary flavor in Washington Boro, south of Lancaster, didn't have much to crow about here. And even a former titleist, the Rutgers "Ramapo" hybrid - known for the sweet start and tangy acidic finish that were the hallmarks of the traditional Jersey tomato - was on the bland side and a bit mealy to boot.

In the spirit of mea culpa-ing, Rabin offered that the Ramapo in question might not have been fully ripe.

Others postulated that some of the fruit had been cold-stored before the tasting, a surefire flavor killer.

And still others opined that the tomatoes had been cut up too early, allowing the heat to spirit away the flavor-carrying volatile oils before the assembled gardeners, journalists and chefs got their first bite.

The Rutgers crew, it appeared, had taken one step forward and two steps back, squandering at the tasting what it had labored so mightily to restore in the field.

Contact columnist Rick Nichols at 215-854-2715 or rnichols@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/ricknichols.