News From the Farm | July 27, 2015

The Heirloom Tomato

Many of the tomatoes that we call ‘heirlooms’ today were developed in home gardens in the 19th century.  Without refrigerated transport or large-scale farming, tomatoes were grown according to the characteristics of each region, and eaten vine ripened.  Although the majority of the tomato varieties grown in the U.S. before the Civil War have long since disappeared, a small number of gardeners in many different regions kept growing the varieties they knew, whether green or orange, bumpy or freckly, pulpy or crisp.  

In the1930s and ‘40s, agriculture turned away from this wide array of open-pollinated crops and towards a narrow range of hybrid crops. As this occurred, there was a substantial increase in the scale of farming, the widespread application of synthetic fertilizers, and the growth of agribusiness.  The tomato changed radically.  The long reign of the uniformly bright red, round tomato had begun.  Standard sizes and shapes were easier to distribute, and were considered more attractive on grocery-store shelves. For decades it was nearly impossible to buy an ‘heirloom’ tomato, and gardeners had to search far and wide to find the seeds.

But then, in our lifetime, relatively quickly, starting in the late 1980s and early 1990s, heirloom tomatoes moved from backyards, and garden sheds to farmers markets, commercial nurseries, school gardens, urban farms, and upscale restaurants. Full Belly’s early CSA and farmers market customers were a big part of this change.

The plant breeders and scientists that had developed the round, shiny regular-looking tomatoes didn’t welcome the cocky heirloom intruder, as illustrated in a Scientific American article of March, 2009, titled How to Grow a Better Tomato – The Case Against Heirloom Tomatoes: “No matter how you slice it, their seeming diversity is only skin-deep: heirlooms are actually feeble and inbred – the defective product of breeding experiments that began during the Enlightenment and exploded thanks to enthusiastic backyard gardeners from Victorian England to Depression-era West Virginia. Heirlooms are the tomato equivalent of the pug – that ‘purebred’ dog with the convoluted nose that snorts and hacks when it tries to catch a breath.”

At Full Belly Farm, owner Andrew Brait has spearheaded the tomato operation from the start, and his recollection of the growth of our heirloom market is that it came a little bit out of left field.  He says, “People wanted to have a closer relationship to their food source and they knew that all these varieties had been grown for generations, but were disappearing. Many people have a memory of the perfect tomato – maybe they picked it in their grandma’s backyard – and they wish that tomatoes always tasted like that.”

The first generation of Full Belly heirloom tomatoes was pretty rough looking. The scientists were partly right – their skins were fragile, they were prone to splitting, the yields weren’t high (at first), and they didn’t transport well in refrigerated trucks.  All of those obstacles had to be addressed with experimentation and invention.  But as we learned more about the plants, we grew more each year, with 25% growth in acreage for several years in a row.  Now we’ve capped at about 25 acres, and we feel like that’s the right amount for our mix of summer crops.

Andrew got a lot of the seeds for his early heirloom tomato experiments through Seed Savers Exchange – a small, grassroots organization of people who exchange seeds with each other. The cherished varieties that these seed savers kept alive had never been commercial varieties.  Andrew calls Seed Savers Exchange “a grassroots plant variety rescue and seed bank.” 

When Andrew started farming in New England, he realized that many of the crop varieties that had been lost were well suited to New England, in contrast to many of the varieties offered by seed companies, which were appropriate anywhere – thus catering to a larger market. Flavor was easily lost along with the old varieties.

Andrew remembers that there were challenges to overcome in learning how to grow heirlooms at Full Belly. He says, “The majority of the fruit we harvested at first didn’t look remotely like the tomato that we were trying to grow. The shape was too funky, the flesh and skin was too soft, the cracking was excessive, and the fruit was intolerant of too much sun.  They were very different to grow than the hybrid tomatoes that have been bred for uniformity.  The heirlooms had a lot more individual expression.  We had a steep learning curve, figuring out what was sellable and what wasn’t.”  It wasn’t just that we had to learn how to grow them.  The standard pack for hybrid tomatoes was a 20-pound, 2-layer box.  Heirlooms couldn’t be packed that way.  

But over a decade of working with the plants, our quality improved. The next step, after we had a little more experience, was to start saving our own seed. Again, Andrew remembers: “In 1995, we did a big trial of 20 varieties, after getting 25 seeds each from Seed Savers.  We barely looked at them all summer.  One day in the early fall, Dru and I went out and couldn’t believe how beautiful some of the tomatoes were.  I remember one of them that really impressed me was the Persimmon. The seed saving process is amazing – saving the seed, growing it out, saving it again, and in that process we were selecting for varieties that we liked.  Now we have some varieties that we have been selecting for 15 years.”

“For example, we have a couple of sport varieties – off-types – that I found in the field. I would find one plant in a row of 500 that had produced an off-type that was gorgeous.  So we collected the tomatoes from that plant and saved the seed and grew them out and have been doing it ever since.  Our Marvel Wow came from the Marvel Stripe, and our beautiful yellow Zapotec came from the red Zapotec.” 

If Full Belly hadn’t had our CSA and farmers market customers, and a lot of adventurous chefs to sell to in the first years when we started growing heirloom tomatoes, it would have been much more difficult for us.  A lot of growers didn’t have that opportunity, because they felt that the heirlooms were so far out of the box that their customers wouldn’t know where to start with them.  Full Belly’s customers were as much a part of the success of the heirloom movement as were the farmers.   Thank you to our early CSA members for tolerating our experiments – if you hadn’t, the heirloom tomato would never have become the important part of our summer crop rotation that it is now.

— Judith Redmond and Andrew Brait