The fascination with heirloom tomatoes has some backyard growers willing to give up the qualities that brought improvement to hybrid varieties in exchange for old fashioned flavor, according to LSU AgCenter gardening specialist Kiki Fontenot.
“I think people tend to associate the tomatoes with the ones maybe their grandparents grew when they were young, and they believe the flavor is just better,” Fontenot said.
For some tomato enthusiasts, heirloom tomatoes have a taste that is unmatched. But Fontenot questions if it’s just in their mind.
“It may be like going back to your elementary school and remembering how big it looked back then, but now it looks a lot smaller,” Fontenot said.
Heirloom tomatoes have slowly been phased out of the market because the new hybrid varieties just simply out-compete them.
Heirloom tomatoes are often misshapen and off-color, which are characteristics that make them hard to produce for today’s market.
For the past 50 years or so, breeders have worked to overcome these deficiencies by developing hybrid varieties that are more acceptable to today’s shopper.
“With the hybrid varieties, a grower may be able to make 30-40 pounds of tomatoes per plant, where you would do well to make 10 pounds with the heirloom varieties,” Fontenot said.
One of the problems with hybrids is they are often picked green, then gas is applied to force them to turn red and then they have to be firm for shipping.
These tomatoes are artificially ripened, so the flavor is often not there, Fontenot said.
This production process is good for commercial growers, but it is causing many smaller growers to reach back for the tomatoes they grew up with, which are the heirlooms.
A hybrid grown in the backyard garden, if left to ripen on the vine, will taste better than a hybrid from the grocery store, Fontenot said.
“I think people associate hybrid with tomatoes from the grocery store,” Fontenot said. “They sometimes don’t have the flavor of those from the garden, but it really is a matter of opinion. Everybody’s taste buds are different.”
The real heirloom tomato growers say there are certain requirements that must be met to be called heirloom, and the main criteria is the tomato has to have at least a 40-50 generation history, Fontenot said.
Regina Bracy, LSU AgCenter professor and resident coordinator at the Hammond Research Station said according to Taylor’s Guide to Heirloom Vegetables, there are two other requirements that have to be considered.
“Taylor says an heirloom also must grow true to type from seed and must have a history or folklore of its own,” Bracy said.
People are looking for that old-time tomato flavor, but there is a trade-off, said Jimmy Boudreaux, retired LSU AgCenter horticulturist.
“Everybody should raise a few heirlooms,” Boudreaux said. “The problem is they won’t hold up for commercial growers.”
Heirloom tomatoes tend to be softer, and they have to be used soon after they ripen.
Bracy said another shortcoming of the heirloom tomatoes is they don’t have the resistance and vigor of the hybrids.
Fontenot said soil may also play a role in the taste of the different varieties of tomatoes.
“We grew heirloom tomatoes in our research plots this year because of the high interest from backyard growers,” Fontenot said. “But they are not varieties that we will spend much time on because we’ve been breeding for the hybrid traits that just aren’t available with heirlooms.”