PALMETTO, Fla. — Heirloom varieties continue to grow in importance in Florida’s tomato fields.

Growers also have the opportunity to grow a new variety designed to compete against other hydroponically grown tomatoes.

Heirloom tomatoes represent about 20% of the tomatoes grown by Plant City-based Ag-Mart Produce Inc., which does business as Santa Sweets Inc. Grape tomatoes and round reds constitute the balance, said J.M. Procacci, Ag Mart’s chief operating officer and COO of Procacci Bros. Sales Inc., Philadelphia.

Heirloom varieties see interest

Doug Ohlemeier

While mature greens remain the overwhelmingly largest produced type of Florida tomato, university breeders have developed Tasti-Lee, a vine-ripe designed to help grab retail market share lost to greenhouse-grown tomatoes.

“We are having record sales with our UglyRipes,” he said.

“Volume is increasing as we get better at it. We’re not increasing acreage, just yields. They have good eating quality this year and these are some of the best we have ever grown.”

Tasti-Lee is a new variety developed by the Gainesville-based University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. The variety, being distributed by seed companies, has been ranked high in consumer taste tests, said Jay Scott, a horticulture professor and tomato breeder at the university’s Gulf Coast Research and Education Center in Balm.

“Tasti-Lee is excellent in taste and ranked high,” he said.

“This tomato is a good way to get tomatoes into the marketplace against the greenhouse-type tomatoes.”

After conducting consumer research, Scott recommends growers market the variety as a branded product. He said there’s enough demand for the variety to be grown on 1,000 acres and said the vine-ripened tomato could be grown at less cost than grape tomatoes.

Jon Esformes, operating partner and chief marketing officer for Pacific Tomato Growers Ltd., said he’s glad breeders are introducing new varieties to help make the Florida tomato industry more competitive.

“The effort is a good thing,” Esformes said.

“We will see how it plays out. We in Florida have high hopes. As my father always says, there’s many a slip between the cup and the lip.”

Reggie Brown, manager of the Maitland-based Florida Tomato Committee and executive vice president of the Florida Tomato Exchange, said the recently released variety remains in its infancy.

“It is a variety that has the potential to fill the niche market opportunity out there for an identifiable, branded product that some growers may have an interest in,” he said.

“There are people interested in those kinds of opportunities. It will remain to be seen how well the product’s reputation develops with the public.”