WIMAUMA, Fla. The taste of the new vine-ripe variety is helping Red Diamond Farms drive its sales.

A division of Tomato Thyme Corp., Red Diamond is one of three entities licensed to grow and distribute the trademarked Tasti-Lee variety developed by the University of Florida Institute of Food &amp Agricultural Sciences" Gulf Coast Research and Education Center in Balm.

Red Diamond Farms boasts new vine-ripe tomatoThe grower-shipper began increasing production of the vine-ripe variety in mid- to late November after striking an exclusive marketing deal with Lakeland-based Publix Super Markets Inc. in late July.

The vine-ripened tomato looks, feels and tastes like a homegrown tomato but with a firmer texture, proponents say.

Michael Lacey, Red Diamond"s director of sales and marketing, said the variety"s firmness allows for maturing to vine-ripe stage but holds up well during harvest, packing and shipping.

Citing competitive reasons, Lacey declined to state acreage.

He did state the grower-shipper this season is expanding Tasti-Lee production to a 535-acre farm east of Sarasota.

That deal should produce fruit in the spring.

"We are continually searching for additional acreage to grow more Tasti-Lees," Lacey said.

"One of our goals as a grower is to eventually grow tomatoes in the Northeast to help with shipping costs, service the local tomato programs as well as service the Canadian market place. We see huge potential in the marketplace both in retail and foodservice."

Though Red Diamond grows small volumes of cherry tomatoes and heirloom tomatoes, grape tomatoes account for 60% of its acreage with the Tasti-Lee vine-ripes also bringing significant production.

Although heavy early season August and September rains caused minor production problems, Lacey in late November said the Tasti-Lees quickly recovered and are producing quality fruit.

In mid-December, Tomato Thyme plans to begin selling the variety to four major U.S. and Canadian retailers.

Lacey said the retailers expressed interest in the variety after visiting Tomato Thyme"s booth at the October Produce Marketing Association Fresh Summit 2011 in Atlanta and the New York Produce Show and Conference in early November.

"We are in an expansion mode," Lacey said.

"We are not looking back at all."

Tomato Thyme"s addition of the variety attracted Lacey, who for nearly five years worked as director of sales for Plant City-based Ag-Mart Produce Inc., which does business as Santa Sweets Inc.

"Santa Sweets" niche has always been its Santa F1 grape tomato and Ugly Ripes, a superior tomato," Lacey said.

"I have always been looking for someone to push the envelope and challenge what"s going on in the industry with something else out there that"s new and exciting. Tasti-Lee is definitely that ticket."