Seed designers expand specialty tomato market

09/19/2008 12:00:00 AM
Ashley Bentley


Dulcinea Farms, Ladera Ranch, Calif., introduced its Rosso Bruno tomato to the market in April 2006. The greenish-brown tomato becomes red only when it overripens.

(Web Editor’s note: This is the second of a series of articles on seed innovation The Packer plans to publish about once a month. For an extended version of this article, see the Sept. 22 print edition of The Packer).

(Sept. 19, 2:32 p.m.) While disease resistance and yield remain important traits in any tomato seed variety, seed producers are also focusing more on the traits that the end-user notices, such as size, color, texture and flavor.

“So many retailers are trying to dictate exactly what size, color, etc., they’re looking for,” said Bill Kazokas, tomato breeder and station manager for Enza Zaden Research USA Inc.’s Sarasota, Fla., station. The San Juan Bautista, Calif.-based company is a business unit of Enkhuizen, Netherlands-based Enza Zaden.

Specialty tomatoes increase

Although the tomato market is dominated by two main types, rounds and romas, the specialty category is the only one that enjoyed growth last year, said Rod Jorgenson, product business manager for tomatoes for Syngenta International AG, Basel, Switzerland.

“The specialty market is strong, but it’s still small,” said Ted Angell, product development manager for BHN Seed Inc., an Immokalee, Fla.-based fresh market tomato seed breeding company.

“One of the limitations to breeding a big range of everything is that returns aren’t as big on smaller varieties. There’s a limitation to what a company like mine will do in specialties because it’s still a small market.”

BHN develops and sells hybrid tomato seeds to seed marketers.

Jorgenson said some of the most important general tomato qualities have to do with firmness, size, color and gel retention.

As far as size goes, many breeders are seeing a demand for a smaller tomato.

“One of the things we’ve learned through retail groups is that the days of the big slicing tomato are over for many families,” Kazokas said. “If you have a big tomato, half of it gets eaten and the other half rots in the fridge.”

Jorgenson said flavor has a lot to do with why people are looking for smaller tomatoes.

“There’s kind of an inverse relationship between size and sugar,” Jorgenson said. “As you increase size, it’s harder to get sugars and volatiles into the fruit. When you’re talking about flavor, that’s why you’re seeing smaller.”

Cluster, color trends on the rise

Jorgenson said the market will see more kinds of specialty tomatoes in coming years, but cluster tomatoes rank as the hottest specialty now, Jorgenson said.

“For cluster tomatoes, bright red color and good attachment to the thrust are important,” Jorgenson said. “These tomatoes also require a more strict approach to flavor because those customers are more concerned with flavor.”

Consumers also are seeing more variety in tomato colors.

“Yellow and orange are our strongest secondary colors,” Kazokas said. “But there’s a limited market for those because people still look for red when they look for tomatoes.”

Expansion, commercial launch coming

One of Syngenta’s efforts, its Rosso Bruno tomato, is a brown vine-ripened tomato marketed by one of the company’s business divisions, Dulcinea Farms LLC, Ladera Ranch, Calif.

The tomato, which was introduced in April 2006, is a greenish-brown color that becomes red only when it overripens. The company recommends eating the tomato when it is a deep brown color, between its green and red stages.

Monique McLaws, marketing manager for Dulcinea Farms, said the company is on target to test a tomato expansion in 2009, followed by a commercial launch in 2010. The Rosso Bruno tomato is the only one the company offers.

“Color differentiation is just another way to set yourself apart,” Jorgenson said. “You taste fruit first with your eyes. If it looks good, the consumer’s already on his way to having a great taste experience.”

Addressing texture concerns

Texture of the fruit can also make or break a consumer’s eating experience.

Angell said BHN breeds for as firm a texture as it can get because the tomato softens as it ripens.

“We’ve had some almost like an apple,” Angell said.

Nunhems Netherlands BV, a Nunhem, Netherlands-based seed company with U.S. headquarters in Parma, Idaho, sells and markets a low-gel tomato through The Produce Exchange, Livermore, Calif.

The Intense tomato, a roma tomato designed with the foodservice market in mind, offers less drip and denser fruit than a regular roma.

The heirloom tomato variety is a generally watery tomato that seems to be gaining popularity. Heirlooms are thought to be high-flavor, but generally have a short shelf life, as they are commonly a backyard garden variety.

Trying to fill winter void

Six L’s Packing Co. Inc., Immokalee Fla., released an heirloom-type tomato in mid-August it hopes will fill the heirloom void left during winter months. Heirloom tomatoes are generally a summer variety.

“We see consumers and chefs continually looking for a more unique flavor profile of an old-fashioned, backyard tomato,” said Darren Micelle, chief marketing officer for Six L’s. “To offer commercial production will allow us to offer that type of tomato to a broader audience.”

Micelle said he expects the tomato to be a main tomato in the winter for some retailers.

Angell said BHN doesn’t work on heirloom tomatoes because heirlooms are open pollinated fruit.

“What we would do is try to produce what you want in an heirloom, which is taste, and get other qualities into it,” Angell said. “If you have a hybrid that tastes as good as an heirloom but produces more and has disease resistance, the hybrid can make an heirloom better, but it’s technically not an heirloom.”

European roots

Jorgenson said many of the ideas for new tomato varieties come from Europe.

“Europe is a much more differentiated tomato market,” Jorgenson said. “Their use is so much greater. We watch what’s going on and their normal development and we try it here in the U.S.”

Not everything that works in Europe works in the U.S., though.

“A lot of material you bring over doesn’t have a special slot, so those products you want to take downtown and show to chefs and big tomato marketers and say, ‘What can you do with this?’” Jorgenson said. “It’s kind of a new model of business, at least for us, anyway.”

Angell said BHN does its own field trials and goes through seed marketers to test varieties. The company has breeding stations worldwide.

“A round tomato that works in Florida doesn’t work in Mexico, and so on,” Angell said.

The company’s many locations, as well as locations of its marketers, help it to test varieties.

“The tomato becomes very segmented,” said Jeff Siegers, vegetable seed consultant for Siegers Seed Co., Holland, Mich. “Each region wants a different type, and each region can grow differently. You also have two distinctly different markets with rounds and romas.”

Determinate versus indeterminate

Another classification that diversifies the tomato market is whether the seed produces a determinate or indeterminate plant. Romas are an example of a tomato that grows on a determinate plant, also known as a bush plant. These varieties produce a more compact plant, usually around 4-feet tall, their fruit ripens in the same period, usually two weeks, and then they die.

Indeterminate, or vining, plants grow taller and produce fruit throughout the season. They can blossom and set and ripen fruit all at the same time. Most heirloom varieties are indeterminate, sources said.

Most cherry tomatoes and grape tomatoes are indeterminate.

“Companies over the last few years have been trying to produce determinate-type compact plants to produce grapes,” Kazokas said.

Jorgenson said most determinate tomatoes go to the open field, while indeterminate plants go to protected culture, like greenhouses.

“With determinate, it’s a much quicker harvesting time for growers, basically a once a season shot,” Jorgenson said. “So you’ve got to balance all these different kinds of tomatoes.”



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