PALMETTO, Fla. — A new variety is stirring interest in Florida tomatoes.

New variety stokes interest in Florida tomatoesEntering its first year of commercial production, the University of Florida-developed Tasti-Lee variety is starting to hit grocery store shelves.

The vine-ripe hybrid tomato’s genetics allow it to consistently outperform other varieties in terms of flavor, freshness and health attributes, according to University of Florida breeders.

Wimauma-based Red Diamond Farms, a division of Tomato Thyme Corp., is one of three entities licensed to grow and distribute the trademarked variety.

Michael Lacey, Red Diamond Farms’ director of sales and marketing, said Tomato Thyme’s customers expressed strong interest in the variety’s taste through sampling at the company’s booth during the Oct. 14-17 Produce Marketing Association Fresh Summit 2011 in Atlanta.

“The tomato is grown for its durability and stability on the retail shelf,” Lacey said.

“Every time you cut it, it’s bright red in crimson color. We took a beefsteak tomato, a tomato on the vine and Tasti-Lee. Every single time we cut it, every one of ours cut bright red. It also has 40% higher lycopene than your average tomato, a big selling point.”  

The University of Florida’s Institute of Food & Agricultural Sciences’ Gulf Coast Research and Education Center in Balm developed the tomato through a decade’s worth of breeding.

As it does with the other varieties it develops through its breeding program, Immokalee-based Lipman planted some Tasti-Lee tomatoes in its test plots. Gerry Odell, chief operating officer of farming and packing, said the variety didn’t do well.

“We have our reservations about it,” Odell said.

“We don’t see any particular reason to grow it. I’m not saying it’s not a good variety. It’s just that it isn’t as promising for us.”

Though Lipman maintains substantial participation in all the varieties, Odell said the vertically integrated grower-shipper continually adjusts its mix and acreage as it feels and anticipates changes in markets.

While others have struggled with romas, West Coast Tomato Inc. has thrived.

“Roma demand has been good for us,” said Bob Spencer, vice president and sales manager.

“We have been very fortunate. We have a product people want and it’s been a good product for us. We have been fortunate romas have been a very profitable segment of our tomato market. We continue to work hard in growing our romas.”

With romas accounting for 35% of West Coast’s varietal mix, the grower-shipper markets its romas under its Primo Italiano label.

Romas remain the mainstay for Immokalee Produce Shippers Inc., Immokalee, and account for about 40% of its packings, said Richard Levine, president.

Grapes and vine-ripe rounds represent the balance.

“Romas seem like they’re always our best customer base item,” Levine said.

“Most of our tomatoes are vine-ripes, so it’s a different kind of thing than what the big guys do with mature-greens. The romas and the grapes are the most interesting varieties to work with.”

Levine said he’s seeing strong demand on grapes and vine-ripe rounds.

The abundance of varieties demonstrates Florida tomato growers’ commitment to the industry, said Chuck Weisinger, president and chief executive officer of broker Weis-Buy Farms Inc., Fort Myers.

“This industry has expanded the variety of tomatoes it grows,” he said.

“(In the past,) if it wasn’t a green tomato, it wasn’t anything. Today, we have vine-ripes, grapes, yellows and heirloom varieties. The same gassed tomatoes we grew in the past and romas.”

For the DiMare Co., Homestead, mature-greens constitute 85% of its packings with romas at 10% and grapes accounting for 9%, said Tony DiMare, vice president. He said the mix hasn’t really changed much.

“Grapes are continuing to experience good movement and demand,” he said.

“But this can be very easily overdone and has been overdone. You can have the best demand but still, it’s only (part) of demand. If the industry continues to overproduce, grapes, rounds, romas and greenhouse tomatoes will suffer serious losses because of what the costs are today.”