The Jersey tomato has a special place in its home state’s self-image, and not only because New Jersey’s farmers grew and sold more than 62 million pounds of them last year, $38.1 million worth.
The truth is that to many people, the Jersey tomato isn’t just as good as any tomato they can get anywhere. They remember it being better than any other tomato they ever had.
But the Jersey tomato brand has been watered down in recent decades, according to many critics. So Rutgers, the state’s university, is trying to do something about that.
The Rutgers New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station in Cumberland County is part of a long-running effort to re-create the Rutgers tomato, a variety with a history well beyond its home state.
“What people remember as the Jersey tomato was really the Rutgers tomato,” said Tom Orton, a professor of plant biology and head of Rutgers’ tomato program.
Orton and his researchers have been working since 2010 to build a better Rutgers tomato. The project has narrowed its search to three finalists to become the new variety, which the creators hope will combine “the flavor of an heirloom with the durability of supermarket varieties,” a university spokeswoman said.
The stakes are high. Tomatoes are worth more than $2 billion a year to American farmers, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. California and Florida, the giants of the national market, grow more than 30,000 acres of tomatoes, far more than the 2,900 acres of Jersey tomatoes.
One key step in Rutgers’ research has involved blind taste tests for everyday consumers. The Margate Community Farmers Market held one last week. Those free tomato tastes attracted a line of curious customers volunteering to rate Rutgers’ three finalists, and as a control group, three heirloom varieties already on the market. The consumers were asked to grade tomatoes on four factors: sweetness, acidity, flavor and texture.
The judges included Wilson Klein, a former Atlantic City High School teacher who’s a regular at the Margate market because he sells his crops from the organic Fertile Crescent Farm in Medford. He grows heirloom tomatoes including White Wonder and Black Plum, and spent lots of time in the tasting line.
“Low acidity, but good sweetness,” he said, marking up the points on his score sheet for one of the tomatoes, identified only by number in the test.
Klein is such an interested observer for a very basic reason: “Tomatoes are definitely bread and butter to a small-scale grower,” he said. “People want tomatoes as early (in the season) as possible and as late as possible.”
For years what Americans wanted was the Rutgers tomato. The university released the variety in 1934, and it was so popular that by the 1950s, “close to 70 percent of the tomatoes grown in the country” were Rutgers tomatoes, said Peter Nitzche, another project researcher.
A major user was Campbell Soup Co., the Camden-based food giant that bought truckloads of hand-picked Jersey tomatoes for its famed tomato soup, among other flavors. Many of those tomatoes started out in Cumberland County, not far from the fields where Rutgers is experimenting on its new tomato.
Campbell was hardly the only industrial-scale user. At the summer peak of tomato season, acre after acre of Cumberland County farmland blushed bright red with tomatoes, and some natives swear that parts of Bridgeton were bathed in a distinct tomato-soup aroma from all the trucks delivering their harvest hauls to local packing houses run by Hunt’s, Del Monte and other processors.
In 1970, New Jersey farms grew 280,000 tons of processing tomatoes and 28,000 tons more for the fresh market. By 1992, The New York Times reported that the state’s market for processing tomatoes had crashed, in a story under the headline “The New Jersey Tomato Hits Hard Times.”
Since at least the early ’80s, Campbell has gotten most of its processing tomatoes from California, a company spokesman said. Just one New Jersey commercial processor is still packing canned tomatoes — almost exclusively Roma plum tomatoes — in Gloucester County, said state Assistant Agriculture Secretary Al Murray.
Most of the state’s tomato farmers are growing for the fresh market, most commonly larger beefsteaks or other round, red slicing tomatoes. Many growers are doing their own parts to revive the reputation of the Jersey tomato, Murray said.
“Some of our farmers were trying to become a player in the national market, and in that process, they developed Jersey varieties that had a nice, thick skin and shipped very well. But they sacrificed flavor,” he said. “What happened was that I think consumers noticed a difference, and farmers noticed that, and now the pendulum has switched the other way.”
Now, many sought-after Jersey tomatoes are considered heirlooms and “don’t ship very well beyond our borders,” Murray said. They may look different from the tomato of the old days, but on the plus side, they taste more like the old days.
“A Jersey tomato is not bred to be pretty, by any means,” he said. “A Jersey tomato will never win a beauty contest, but it will win a taste test.”
Cookie Till is owner of Steve & Cookie’s By the Bay, which hosts the weekly Margate farm market in its parking lot. She also knows customers consider Jersey tomatoes a treasure — and not for their looks.
On market morning last week, she pointed in a kitchen storage area to a stack of 26 boxes, 10 pounds each, that go into her Ugly Tomato Salad.
“And that’s just (the supply) for tonight,” she said.
After all its taste tests and other research, Rutgers expects seeds for its new tomato to be available for sale starting in January for next year’s Jersey tomato season.