Spotlight on Tomatoes

Spotlight on Tomatoes

Hardly arrayed like stars, the tomatoes are lumpy, bumpy, disheveled and scarred, yet they command center stage at the farmer's stall.

Although relegated to the background, it's her supporting cast of hybrid tomatoes that earns rave reviews, says Rogue River farmer Teri White.

"The Early Girls, I think, have the best flavor," White says. "That's my favorite tomato over all.

"And they've been in tomato taste-offs and won."

Still craving an Early Girl she enjoyed last summer, Washington Post food writer Jane Black decries the pervasive notion among tomato aficionados that heirlooms are superior to the garden-variety hybrid. Disillusioned with a mealy, bland, locally grown heirloom tomato that cost $4.99 per pound, Black penned an Aug. 12 article to stand up for perfectly round, perfectly red, commercial hybrids.

" 'Heirloom,' " Black writes, "is not synonymous with 'good.' "

She has plenty of sympathizers in White and other local farmers.

"They are harder to grow," White says. "They don't come out perfect. They don't yield as much as the hybrids."

Most growers who sell their tomatoes at the Rogue Valley Growers and Crafters Market or at local farm stands agree with White. Mary Shaw, culinary educator for Ashland Food Co-op, isn't quite so diplomatic about the heirlooms she tried for years to cultivate.

"They're a pain in the butt," Shaw says. "A lot of those heirloom varieties are just a mess inside."

Those imperfections in heirloom tomatoes are proof of their "personalities," Black writes. Prized by foodies, old-fashioned tomatoes are christened with glorious names, such as Casady's Folly or Mullens' Mortgage Lifter. And they come in nearly all the colors of the rainbow: red, yellow, purple, pale green, streaked like a summer sunset with tangerine or bruised black "as if they've just escaped from a back-yard tomato smackdown."

"The heirlooms are always the ugliest," admits Wendy Siporen, executive director of THRIVE, a nonprofit advocacy group for Rogue Valley food producers.

Tomato-tasting competitions at the Rogue Valley Growers and Crafters Market anchor more than a week of activities that THRIVE sponsors for its annual Eat Local Challenge, planned for Sept. 11-20. A locally grown tomato — albeit a perfectly round, red and ripe one — also is the event mascot.

Pressed into service as mascot for the "good-food movement," heirlooms have been championed for their flavor but also have come to symbolize the backlash against industrial agriculture's embrace of pesticides and the development of genetically modified foods. Bred to survive long-distance shipping and extended refrigeration, hybrid tomatoes purchased year-round in supermarkets are typically devoid of the sweetness that only hot summer nights can impart.

Transplanting the humble hybrid from the grocery store to the garden, however, makes all the difference.

"When they're right off the garden, they have really good flavor," says Talent farmer Suzy Fry, whose customers purchase more hybrids than heirlooms. "I think people are kind of used to that big, red tomato."

There remain plenty of growers market customers who won't buy any tomato but an heirloom — defined as any variety that can reproduce from seed and that existed before World War II. As farmers like Matt Suhr planted these older varieties to preserve biodiversity, the tomatoes gained a following with chefs and food writers, who latched on to the term "heirloom." NewsBank, a database that tracks more than 2,500 sources, found 1,097 references to heirloom tomatoes in 2008, up from 77 a decade earlier, Black writes.

Demand for heirlooms has only increased since he started growing tomatoes in 1990, says Suhr, who farms 40 heirloom varieties compared with 10 hybrids at Ashland's Happy Dirt Veggie Patch on Eagle Mill Road. From its farm stand, Happy Dirt sells heirloom tomatoes for $2.75 per pound, almost double the price of its hybrids.

"They should command a higher price because they're harder to grow," Suhr says.

Most farmers follow suit, but White simplifies things for herself and customers, charging the same price for hybrids and heirlooms alike. At $2 per pound, the heirlooms still can't outsell their commonplace counterparts. The Early Girls, which ripen two weeks before any other variety, White says, may have a slight advantage.

"They're small, but size shouldn't matter," she says. "I sell those more than anything."

Reach Food Editor Sarah Lemon at 776-4487, or e-mail

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