Something curious happened to the fabled Jersey tomato in the past 25 years: that gorgeous taste became harder to find. Rutgers researchers tracked down why and are working to bring the flavor back.
Reviving the Jersey Tomato
The Rise and Fall of a Tomato
When it was introduced to commercial growers and home gardeners in 1968, the Rutgers-bred Ramapo tomato quickly became a favorite. And no wonder, even among a field of great varieties, this hybrid was easy to grow, robust, and prolific. Plus, the fruit was plump, round, red—and most of all—flavorful. For some gardeners, the Ramapo became the Jersey tomato, summer in a bite.
But from about the late ’70s through the ’80s, commercial growers shifted their favor to firmer hybrids that could better weather the trip from farm to market, says Cindy Rovins, a communications editor for the Rutgers New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station.
The softer, thinner-skinned Ramapo faded in popularity and the seeds disappeared from the market sometime in the late 1980s, as tougher varieties, modern drip irrigation, and plastic-sheeting mulch allowed farmers to send a larger harvest to store shelves. Unfortunately, as hardiness was bred in, the flavor declined.
Return of a Hybrid
Because the Ramapo is a hybrid tomato—it doesn’t come true from seed—when the seed left the market, the tomato was gone.
In pursuit of that remembered flavor, desperate home and commercial growers would beat a path to the one place that still had the seeds—Rutgers.
For years, the university doled out small batches of seeds, but fell far short of a demand that grew as more people looked for the tomato of their memories.
After years of searching for a commercial partner, Rutgers found a company in Israel that could produce the seed on a large scale and reintroduced the Ramapo in 2008 to much fanfare and attention.
More than two years later, the Ramapo is once again a hit, with orders for the seeds coming in from all over the country and the world. Retailers report brisk sales of plants. Comments from growers from a 2008 survey are typically enthusiastic:
- “Couldn't have been better ... Sturdy plants ... Massive yields ... Fabulous taste!”
- “The tomato was DEElicious!!”
- “Very pleased with the quality of the Ramapo. From seeds to final product A+.”
The public is welcome to buy seeds of the Ramapo and the Moreton cultivars through Rutgers. In early spring 2011, seedlings of these and many other tomato varieties will be available for purchase.
The Quest Continues
Rutgers researchers continue to fine-tune their search for the plants and conditions that create the most delicious examples of New Jersey's unofficial state vegetable. They are examining the components of soil and continue to breed new varieties to produce the most flavorful tomatoes.
The New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station recently completed a survey of “old-time” growers to pinpoint those techniques that also helped produce that great Jersey flavor, say Rovins.
Home and commercial growers can find a wealth of information, lore, and advice on growing that perfect Jersey tomato on the extension’s website.