Out in Upper Deerfield Township in Cumberland County, surrounded by hundreds of acres of corn, are a few acres where Rutgers University researchers are growing the tomatoes of tomorrow.
Rutgers researchers have done that for decades, even developing the Rutgers tomato in the 1930s — a tough, transportable tomato that was for a long time the focal point of tomato development in New Jersey.
Now, an increasing part of the work involves steering research away from tomatoes grown for processing toward ones that fit the traditional image of a New Jersey tomato.
“We started breeding tomatoes that resist bruising,” said Jack Rabin, associate director of farm programs for Rutgers’ New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station. “That’s where the train ran off the track. We were so good at what we were doing, we forgot that people wanted to have a sloppy, juicy thing that left juice running down their chin.”
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“If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that there’s no such thing as the perfect tomato, said Extension Specialist Tom Orton as he stood among rows of tomato plants at the station’s field.
Developing a New Jersey tomato involves a mix of science, soil and patience to develop a fruit about which New Jersey residents can continue to boast, much the way Iowans croon about their corn and Idaho natives praise their potatoes.
There’s also the matter of economics. New Jersey farmers produce more than 62 million pounds of tomatoes in a year worth $38 million, which ranks New Jersey eighth in the nation, according to the state Department of Agriculture.
Research involves work on a variety of tomato types to help keep that industry healthy.
Food processors favor solid, tough-skinned tomatoes because they travel well. Home gardeners love to eat smaller, thin-skinned tomatoes fresh from the vine, their taste a mix of acidity and sweetness. Retailers and supermarkets favor other varieties.
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And the development process isn’t short: Researchers say it can take up to 8 years to develop a new variety, and perhaps three more years to determine whether consumers like it.
While there aren’t many pieces of produce that can immediately put a smile on a face, that’s what happened when Patricia DiMaria walked up to shelves of tomatoes for sale at Muzzerelli Farm in Buena Vista Township last week.
“They’re delicious,” the Pittsgrove Township, Salem County, resident said.
DiMaria said she doesn’t know what makes New Jersey tomatoes taste so good and is somewhat doubtful about the role of science.
“The one thing I know is when they’re out of season, you miss them,” she said.
Buena Borough resident Stephanie Callahan said being a member of a military family caused her to move around the country, including a 20-year period before she returned to New Jersey. She said she grew tomatoes wherever she lived, using the same methods and materials in each location. None of the tomatoes tasted as good as the ones grown in New Jersey, she said.
“It’s got to be the soil,” Callahan said.
Orton said he understands New Jersey residents opt for the soil over the science.
“No one really wants to know that their food was developed in a laboratory by people wearing white lab coats,” he said.
Still, the tomatoes grown just about everywhere in New Jersey have a history that’s intermixed with science.
Researchers contend New Jersey can trace its tomatoes back hundreds of years to when the Spanish colonized parts of northern South America. Spaniards took tomatoes back to Spain, developed new varieties and spread the fruit to different parts of Europe. The tomato eventually made it to North America.
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Ortin said researchers are looking to those tomatoes in northern South America to help them develop new varieties.
Rabin said New Jersey never had one variety from which all the state’s tomatoes can be traced. Today’s red tomatoes developed in part on improvements to heirloom tomatoes, which are a kind of specialty tomato favored by home gardeners even before the turn 20th century, he said.
Rabin said those tomatoes have “tremendous horticultural defects.” They lack resistance to different diseases, “mush” on the way to market, and have bad leaf coverage, which leaves them vulnerable to sunburn. Many of those tomatoes also didn’t taste very good, he said.
Creating better tomatoes for home and processing plants involves starting with successful, current tomato varieties, Orton said. Researchers use nutrients, experiment with water usage, and even try adding salt to build a better tomato, he said.
The research facility in Upper Deerfield Township is one of two Rutgers operates in the state. The other is in Hunterdon County.
Orton said both facilities are needed to develop tomatoes that fit different growing conditions. Tomatoes that grow well in South Jersey’s sandy soil don’t grow as well in the clay-based soil in and around Hunterdon County, he said.
Then there’s the issue of distributing seeds for new varieties developed by Rutgers, Ortin said. The station distributed a pound of new variety seeds last year and wants to increase that to five pounds this year, he said.
That’s a substantial amount of work. It’s estimated that there could be more than 7,000 tomato seeds per ounce.
At the research facility last week, Dana Gould, 22, of Deerfield Township, and 19-year-old Millville resident Emily Simone were both busy with the tedious work of collecting seeds. Gould, an agriculture major at Rutgers, and Simone, an environmental studies major at Cumberland County College, are summer interns.
The two women sliced ripe, red tomatoes in half and then squeezed the juice and seeds into a strainer. They then pressed the juice through the strainer, leaving the seeds behind.
According to Rabin, the work to develop better tomatoes will never end.
“It’s really a continuous process, and every variety has its time, and then its time is over,” he said.