Chuck Robinson, Media Watch
Chuck Robinson, Media Watch

Tomatoes are on my mind, and it’s no wonder.

I am fresh off being one of the judges for the NatureSweet Homegrown Tomato Challenge on Aug. 24 in St. Louis. I wish I could attend the Sept. 7 challenge in the Denver area and the Sept. 14 one in the Atlanta area.

The cherokee purple that won top honors in the large tomato category was excellent, and the Harrison, Ohio, grower who brought it to St. Louis for the contest should be proud. A check for $2,500 for winning can pay for some celebration. That grower, Susan Linko, is a repeat winner. Cherokee purple was also a grand-prize winner for her 10 years ago, the first year of the event, and she has entered several times since.

That day, besides the tomatoes and dishes we judged, I consumed a lot of packages of Charriots snack packs from San Antonio-based NatureSweet Ltd.

Then I came home to my overloaded sun gold tomato vines and continued the feast.

With all this in the background, an Aug. 26 article in The New York Times, “Building a Better Mass-Market Tomato,” caught my eye. It reported on the University of Florida’s Institute for Plant Innovation using genetic engineering to identify the genes that make a tomato taste better.

The article carefully noted the university doesn’t intend for any genetically engineered tomato to make it to supermarkets. Imagine the backlash.

However, genetic engineering can help guide traditional hybridizing process. It can help identify and narrow the target. Genetic tests will tell researchers which tomatoes have the desired genes.

The tomato genome was sequenced last year. Are we on the brink of big changes?

The researcher, Harry Klee, says in the article he expects some of the fruits of his labor will be available to commercial growers in four or five years.

An Ohio State University researcher, a traditional hybridizer, is quoted to balance out the pro-genetic engineering vibe in the article saying “flavor is a lot more complicated than manipulating one or two genes.”

Sure, that has to be true, as far as it goes, but everything is more complicated than that. In marketing a tomato, factors include the cultivar, the growing practices, the transportation, the competition, the market and the packaging.

Those complex factors are what make some of the products on the market today so remarkable.

Those packages of NatureSweet’s Charriots I had over the weekend were amazing. They were tasty, convenient and transportable. NatureSweet had to focus on a lot of details to produce the Charriots and sister products.

The University of Florida research points to an exciting shift.

As was evident from NatureSweet’s Homegrown Tomato Challenge, there are a lot of people excited by tomatoes.

Improved technology in hybridizing and several other fields added to an avid base of tomato aficionados suggests this is quite a time to be marketing tomatoes.

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