PALMETTO, Fla. â Heirloom varieties continue to grow in importance in Floridaâs 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 Martâs chief operating officer and COO of Procacci Bros. Sales Inc., Philadelphia.
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.
âWe are having record sales with our UglyRipes,â he said.
âVolume is increasing as we get better at it. Weâre not increasing acreage, just yields. They have good eating quality this year and these are some of the best we have ever grown.â
Tasti-Lee is a new variety developed by the Gainesville-based University of Floridaâs 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 universityâs Gulf Coast Research and Education Center in Balm.
âTasti-Lee is excellent in taste and ranked high,â he said.
âThis tomato is a good way to get tomatoes into the marketplace against the greenhouse-type tomatoes.â
After conducting consumer research, Scott recommends growers market the variety as a branded product. He said thereâs 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 heâs glad breeders are introducing new varieties to help make the Florida tomato industry more competitive.
âThe effort is a good thing,â Esformes said.
âWe will see how it plays out. We in Florida have high hopes. As my father always says, thereâs many a slip between the cup and the lip.â
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.
âIt 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,â he said.
âThere are people interested in those kinds of opportunities. It will remain to be seen how well the productâs reputation develops with the public.â