Rutgers sowing seeds for a tastier, tangier tomato

A sure sign that spring is just around the corner: Think New Jersey tomatoes.

For a second year, home gardeners have a chance to grow a new version of the famous, classic Rutgers variety, which became synonymous with the Jersey tomato for decades after it was released to the public in 1934.

The Rutgers New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station in Cumberland County has released seeds for sale to the public of four tomato varieties as part of its "Rediscover the Jersey Tomato" project.

Researchers at Rutgers University say they have perfected an improved and juicier tomato, not found in supermarkets, reminiscent of tangy, flavorful Jersey tomatoes grown by farmers between the 1930s and 1970s.

The most popular among the varieties is the Rutgers 250, which debuted in 2016 and was named in celebration of the university’s 250th anniversary.  It was selected for its high fruit quality and flavor.

"We think it's better than the original," Thomas Orton, a professor in the department of plant biology and pathology, said. "We are hoping people will embrace it."

Last year, the seed packets as well as 1,200 seedlings quickly sold out as home gardeners jumped at a chance to reproduce and capture the distinctive taste of a traditional Jersey tomato.  Varieties were also available for commercial growers.

This year, about 4,500 seed packets of the Rutgers 250 will be available for online and mail-order purchase for home gardeners. Each packet contains approximately 30 seeds.  Packets are $4 each.

“We do have plenty this year. We don’t anticipate on running out,” said Cindy Rovins, a spokeswoman for the Rutgers experiment station. “We have a whole lot more seeds for the second year."

Orton said it could take several years before researchers know whether the reinvented tomato line is a success. The response last spring was overwhelmingly positive, he said.

"We'll see after this  year if demand continues to rise," Orton said Monday.

Researchers spent years breeding a better version of the Jersey tomato, cross-pollinating, cultivating, and evaluating the fruit of 230 "breeding lines."  They wanted to create a more modern tomato that has the structure and firmness of the fruit and a taste that says "Jersey."  

After blind taste tests to narrow their choice, the Rutgers 250 tomato was selected by researchers, based on size, color, disease resistance and, mostly, flavor.

The reinvented Jersey tomato was designed with home gardeners and small specialty growers in mind, Orton said. The seeds should be sowed between late March and April and transplanted into gardens in May or June, he said.  They should be ready for harvesting in July and the season could last until fall.

Over the years, the Jersey tomato gradually lost some of its appeal because breeders, bowing to pressure from growers, developed more durable varieties suitable for transport, Orton said.  Tomato lovers have been largely disappointed, he said.

"People were just not satisfied with what they were getting in stores, roadside stands and everywhere else," Orton said. "Breeders and growers weren't listening to consumers."

Researchers believe they have a winner with the Rutgers 250 tomato, which they say  adds a burst of flavor and juiciness to salads and sandwiches. It has the perfect balance of sweetness and acidity, they say.

“Plant breeders will tell you it's virtually impossible to re-create the exact original hybrid, “ said Richard W. VanVranken, the Rutgers Cooperative Extension agent for Atlantic County. “But hopefully this new version incorporates many of the great flavors people remember with some improvements that have been recognized over the years.”

The other varieties available are the Ramapo F-1, the Moreton F-1 and the KC-146, which was developed by Campbell Soup Co.  at its Cinnaminson research facility as a processing tomato and released in 1956.

For years, discerning tomato lovers have bemoaned the modern-day tomato as lacking the tangy taste they  recalled. The more modern variety, while great for shipping, has failed to satisfy finicky taste buds.

When the reinvented version debuted last year, Dennis DesRosiers of Halifax, Pa., was chomping at the bit to try his hand at growing a tomato that reminded him of those that he remembered from his childhood in Bloomfield, N.J.

DesRosiers wrote that he would “go to my grave happy If I could ever bite into a real tomato.”

Unfortunately, his green thumb turned brown last year, DesRosiers, 74, said. He was surprised that every seed germinated, but when he translated the 7-inch plants, he made a costly mistake.

"All of them died because, I think, I overwatered them. I am going to try again this year. I can’t tell you how disappointing it was for me to lose them and not be able to taste them," he said Monday.

 To order the Rutgers 250 or other varieties click here http://njfarmfresh.rutgers.edu/rutgers-njaes-tomato-seeds-order-form.pdf or contact Rutgers Plant Diagnostic Lab, Attn: 2017 Tomato Seed, Box 550, Milltown, N.J. 08850. or njfarmfresh@njaes.rutgers.edu