When we started growing “heirloom tomatoes” at Terra Firma back in the 1990s, we were among a small group of growers seeking a market niche in a landscape of mostly inedible supermarket tomatoes. It was extremely challenging to make a living growing varieties bred by backyard gardeners who were mostly interested in flavor. Most of the heirlooms available back then yielded poorly and were heavily damaged when packed in the same manner as commercial tomatoes — two layers deep in a box. One of our biggest breakthroughs was convincing the packaging company to create a box that held only one layer of fruit.
Some people are under the impression that heirloom varieties are more pest- and disease-resistant than their supermarket cousins. Nothing could be further from the truth. They are highly susceptible to common plant maladies, and their thin skins are easily scarred by insects and have a tendency to split when watered. Most problematic of all, they tend to abort their flowers if it’s too cold or too hot.
Luckily, the people who loved to buy and eat heirloom tomatoes were willing to pay extra for them, enough to make it worthwhile to grow them. Restaurants in particular loved the variety of colors, flavors, and textures. Over the years, we learned the nuances of farming heirlooms, trialing dozens of varieties to find the ones that grew, tasted, and looked the best. The chefs, meanwhile, learned how to prepare, pair, and serve each type to best show off its flavor and beauty.
Along the way, professional plant breeders began to improve the performance of many of the varieties while retaining their special appearance and flavor. Very few of the varieties we grow at Terra Firma now are actually “heirlooms”, and a some are actually hybrids (but not genetically modified). A more appropriate name would be something like “Craft”, “Artisan”, “Specialty”, or even “Bespoke”.
For anyone without a restaurant, including — let’s face it, CSA farmers — the dazzling variety of specialty tomatoes has always presented a problem of how to educate their customers. Most retailers sell only generic “mixed heirlooms”, the varieties commingled in one display with no way for the customer to identify which is which.
Even at farmers markets, it’s difficult to explain the differences between the varieties in a concise fashion. Everyone wants to know “Which one is sweetest?”. But tomatoes are not sugar cubes, and individual palates experience each variety differently. And a sampling of raw tomatoes — in itself a labor-intensive undertaking — does not approximate the experience of a restaurant menu where 4 different varieties are prepared differently but served alongside each other to highlight their subtle differences.
Last year, the pandemic shut down most of the restaurants and with them, the heirloom tomato market. The retailers we sell tomatoes to reported that worried and cost-conscious shoppers were shying away from the pricier heirlooms while loading up on traditional tomatoes.
This year we cut back heavily on our specialty tomato production. We focused more on growing the varieties that we consider “the best” and which our retail customers tell us are the most popular with shoppers.
By far, the largest percentage of specialty tomatoes we grow now are “brown”, “black” or “purple” varieties. These have higher amounts of anthocynanins that give tomatoes their umami “tomato-ness”. They are also generally very juicy and liquid, and thus best enjoyed uncooked. Over the course of the season the varieties include Black Prince, Cherokee Purple, Carbon and Berkeley Pink Tie Die.
Still, Terra Firma’s CSA box list never includes the name of the exact tomato varieties in your boxes. Why? Because we rarely harvest a large amount of one variety in a day. Yesterday, for example, we harvested thousands of pounds of tomatoes, but that number included a dozen varieties. Over the course of the season, each one waxes and wanes in its production, the amounts of each that we harvest changing on a daily basis.