The Saga of One Juicy Tomato
by Mary Jasch
Forget the knife. Go ahead, take a bite out of that fragrant, red fruit. Sweet, juicy, flavorful...it's everything you’ve ever wanted. It’s the Rutgers Ramapo tomato - and it’s back.
“It’s a regular medium-size red tomato that just happens to not taste like cardboard.” - Jack Rabin
Produced as a commercial tomato in 1968, the Ramapo tomato was also made available to home gardeners. Gardeners loved its color, taste and texture but those very attributes and their attendant yin-yang downsides helped make this Garden State goody undesirable to farmers who had to ship them to market. And when the commercial tomato market nixed the fruit, gardeners lost out.
But now after almost four decades in Tomato Purgatory, this F1 hybrid’s seed is back in production, thanks to New Jersey backyard gardeners who ranked it high in flavor and demanded its return. Right now, about 700,000 Ramapo seeds for gardeners and about 280,000 for farmers and commercial plant growers await soil, sun and fawning growers.
“Originally when it was released in 1968 the target customer base for it was commercial farmers, as was the target for most ag experiment stations in the country. That’s who we bred for,” says Jack Rabin, associate director of Rutgers University’s New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station (NJAES).
The Japanese Sakata Seed Corporation had the exclusive contract, producing it for farmers with a sideline for gardeners. But the Ramapo, a high quality eating tomato, fell out of favor because: 1) It was a “main season” variety with a 75-85 day maturity. (In the ‘60s and ‘70s earliness was prized. The earlier to market, the more chance of getting higher prices on the wholesale market) and 2) it was not the highest yielding variety.
Additionally, Ramapo was semi-determinate while other varieties were more determinate – shorter plants with shorter internodes, higher concentration of fruit set and uniformity of size. Ramapo was tall and rangy and needed staking and more frequent harvesting. It was more labor intensive. From a commercial perspective, it was not very competitive. Sakata stopped production and the market got dominated by tomato varieties with higher yields and unappealing taste.
“My whole career I’ve done research and extension work for farmers, not for gardeners,” says Rabin. “There’s only one thing that made me bother coming back to Ramapo, although now it’s taken on a life of its own, and that is: everybody was so disappointed in the flavor of tomatoes.”
In their pursuit of great-tasting tomatoes, in 2000, NJAES began field-trialing about 150 heirloom varieties, a frustrating endeavor due to mislabeled seed from companies and soft fruit that didn’t handle well.
“Chefs like heirlooms because they have color and texture and different tastes and though everybody latched on to them as a way to get great-tasting tomatoes back, they’re not the end-all and be-all,” Rabin says.
For eight years now they’ve invited the public to blind taste heirlooms – with a few secret hybrids among them, including Ramapo. Tasters rated Ramapo as good as the better heirlooms, yet Ramapo was a regular good garden tomato, free from all the defects.
“A lot of heirlooms have cat facing and scraggly plants, with no disease-resistance,” says Rabin. “Horticulturally, they leave a lot to be desired frequently. So here we had this tomato that tasted as good as an heirloom but the plant type and the yield and quality of the fruit were more like a commercial variety and that’s what really pulled us back to Ramapo. We’ve never stopped working on tomatoes. It just came to us that we had a great tomato sitting in our midst and we weren’t paying attention to it and this was at the same time that consumers were so pissed about the taste of fresh fruit. They’re disappointed and they know things can be better. We know things can be better and we’re trying to help that out with public research.”
With a little luck, Rabin and associates found Ramapo’s parents with ex-Rutgers Professor Bernard Pollack who had moved to California. Pollack had previously bred Ramapo and its parents: Abbie (named after his daughter) and KCA which he had improved from a tomato processing company variety.
“The only way we got Ramapo back was we went back to Bernie and he gave us the remaining 20-year-old seed sitting in his house in San Diego. Had he not provided that to us and the seed lost germination vigor, we would have been out of luck. He was really nice to us and now it’s available to gardeners again and everybody’s happy.”
So how is it that Rabin now pays Genesis Seed, Ltd. in Israel to produce Ramapo seed for him?
One day Rabin found an old thesis from Harry Paris, a Rutgers PhD student in the ‘70s. He emailed Paris, now one of Israel’s leading plant breeders and a world authority on Jack-o-lantern pumpkins and zucchini and one of the last great plant breeders. Paris told him of two really high-tech seed companies in Israel that started business in the desert where plant diseases are almost absent.
“The Israelis have very high agricultural technology, use a lot of good lab analysis for pathology and disease work, and they farm in a Mediterranean climate which does not spread foliar diseases. They have global expertise in hybrid seed and produce them organically. There’s no way we can do that in the United States,” he says.
Except for bulky agronomic seed, almost no hybrid seed is made in the US anymore due to labor costs. Tomato seed, 275,000/pound, is portable and easily produced in that part of the world with the best technology, the most reliable expertise and the lowest labor costs. Taiwan and Mexico produce most of the world’s hybrid tomato seeds.
“Because we’re university, they agreed to produce the seed for me, certified organic at a cheaper price than an American or Taiwanese company would have charged me to produce regular seed. They ran bio-chemical analyses of the seed they produced for us to make sure it’s free from pathogens so they can come in through quarantine and then through customs. It was a good deal. That’s why I chose Genesis.”
But research doesn’t stop with production and marketability. NJAES extension specialist Tom Orton attributes Ramapo’s high quality to genetics. Orton, a Rutgers professor in plant biology and pathology at the School of Environmental and Biological Sciences, works with vegetable breeding and genetics. “In general we like to return flavor to commercial tomatoes.”
Abbie, with low acid and high sugar content, and KCA, with high acid and intermediate sugars, produce Ramapo’s middle range sugars with KCA’s acidity. “It’s a pretty repeatable characteristic,” he says. “The fruit can look quite different but acid levels seem to be consistent which indicates very strongly that it’s probably genetically controlled. The next question is: what is the genetic control? How many genes are involved and how do they behave?” His breeding program focuses on bringing more flavor into garden tomatoes with high yield and grower qualities.
Rabin looks onward after Ramapo. NJAES has their eye on another ex-commercial hybrid, Mordton F1, an early tomato with great taste – an unusual combination. “So if we could have a portfolio variety so that gardeners can have tomatoes from July 4th right through frost and have good taste – that’s my goal.”
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published May 19, 2008