The Return of the Jersey Tomato: Seed Production in the Global Economy

12 mins read

You’ve probably not thought about it but those hybrid tomato seeds that you are getting ready to plant in pots of Pro Mix, more likely than not, were grown in another country, where the climate was conducive to growing disease-free seeds. And, it’s also where the cost of the intensive labor that takes between 1,600 to 1,800 painstaking hand pollinations, (complete with tweezers, tags and/or bags), to produce a pound of F1 (hybrid) seeds, was affordable.

While it’s unlikely that any of us would ever be in the market for a pound of hybrid tomato seeds, Jack Rabin of the New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station at Rutgers University recently bought not one, but four pounds of “Ramapo” tomato seeds. Not only were the seeds grown in another country at a price he could afford, they were also seeds of a tomato that had been developed by Rutgers’ breeder Bernard Pollack in the 1960s; seeds with local roots, if you will. But, as usual, The Opinionated Gardener is getting ahead of herself.


Workers hand pollinate tomato plants at Genesis, a small independent Israeli seed company that produces certified organic F1 seeds in the Arava Valley of the Negev desert. (Photo courtesy of Genesis Seeds, Ltd) Inset at right: The Ramapo tomato. (Photo by Peter Nitzsche, courtesy of Jack Rabin, Rutgers NJAES)

Never heard of Ramapo? You are not alone and you’ll not find it in this season’s crop of seed catalogues. Ramapo hasn’t been available commercially for some time – not since seed companies started catering to commercial agriculture and its need for varieties of tomatoes capable of long-distance shipping (or picked-when-green, gassed, tasteless and tough-skinned) and versatile growing conditions.

In seeking to purchase the Ramapo seeds, Rabin was responding to the call for the return of taste. Not only did Ramapo have excellent taste equal to many of the best open-pollinated heirloom varieties, it was uniform in appearance and resistant to the myriad of diseases that beset the tomato, something heirloom open-pollinated varieties could not promise, Rabin said in a recent email. Unavailable for the past 20 years, it was time to resurrect Ramapo. (Partial disclosure: The Opinionated Gardener grew up on “Jersey Tomato” sandwiches, thick with mayonnaise; she also graduated from Rutgers University.)

Genesis and the Resurrection of the “Jersey Tomato”

However, while Rutgers was still maintaining Ramapo’s purebred-inbred parents, it needed someone to “mate” them, if you will, to produce the four pounds of F1 hybrid seed Rabin needed to jump start Ramapo’s return. All he had to do was find someone to carry out the hand pollinations it would take to produce the four pounds of seeds. (The OG estimated it would take between 6,000 to 7,000 hand pollinations to produce the four pounds.)

Seemed simple enough. But when Rabin went looking for a reliable grower, he found, with his budget cut by the New Jersey Legislature, he could not afford the price domestic seed companies were asking and besides they weren’t interested in producing such a modest – by seed industry standards – amount of seed. (If, as noted in the Fedco catalogue, one ounce of tomato seeds contains 9,000 seeds, the OG figures that one pound will contain somewhere in the vicinity of 140,000 seeds and four pounds will contain over 550,000 seeds.)

While Rabin had no connections with seed growers in Mexico and Taiwan where a lot of seed production is done because of their cheap labor costs, he was able, thanks to a former colleague, to make a connection with Genesis, a small independent Israeli seed company that was producing certified organic F1 seeds in the Arava Valley of the Negev desert, using Filipino and other low wage workers. Genesis not only bred and grew its own varieties, it grew the seeds of varieties that had been bred by others. (Complete Disclosure: The Opinionated Gardener worked on a farm in the Negev in the mid-’60s, almost 30 years before the company was established.)

Last month, Rabin received his Ramapo seeds in the mail from Genesis – all 572,000 of them. They are now being sorted into 8,000 packets for trial distribution to gardeners and farmers. The OG has put in her order (see sidebar) for 30 seeds to trial them in Temple, Maine, this summer. Mark Hutton, vegetable specialist at the University of Maine Cooperative Extension and a colleague of Rabin believes that given their 75 days to maturity, they could possibly do well in Maine, especially if grown under hoops. But then again, is there anyone out there breeding a “Maine Tomato” with the taste of a Jersey Tomato?

Genesis and the Maine Connection

Because Genesis (www.genesisseeds.com) is one of the 10 companies in the world that produce organic seeds, it is not unknown to Maine’s two major seed companies: Fedco and Johnny’s Selected Seeds. Among other things, they both purchase its F1 organic ‘Arava’ cantaloupe and ‘Jericho’ lettuce seeds; Fedco’s C.R. Lawn says, ‘Arava’ is a “melt-in-your-mouth Galia-type”; Johnny’ Johnston calls ‘Jericho’ his “best tasting Romaine.” Johnston also contracts with Genesis to grow his organic F1 ‘Apple Pepper.’ The dry arid conditions of the Negev are perfect for growing disease-free pepper seed, he said.

‘Dedicated individual breeders’


Amy LeBlanc, of Whitehill Farm and Tomato Lovers Paradise in Wilton, noted it’s important for readers to know that there are others breeding seeds besides commercial seed companies and the nation’s agricultural experiment stations.

Amy LeBlanc, of Whitehill Farm and Tomato Lovers Paradise in Wilton, noted it’s important for readers to know that there are others breeding seeds besides commercial seed companies and the nation’s agricultural experiment stations.

LeBlanc, who is known for raising unusual varieties of tomatoes (or open-pollinated heirlooms), ought to know. Among the 154 varieties of tomato seedlings she is offering this year are many that were bred by what she calls “one-man-band” or “dedicated individual breeders,” who have no university or corporate connections.

Tom Wagner is one of them. His “Green Zebra,” a tomato that is bright green with yellow stripes when ripe, sweet-tasting and small-fruited is one of LeBlanc’s favorites. “

One of the best tomatoes hands down,” said LeBlanc, who received a blue ribbon for it at Common Ground Fair in ’02. It would be an understatement to say Wagner is unique among breeders; he crosses heirloom varieties. Hybrid heirlooms? Oxymoronic? Not really.

“The work I do with heirlooms is history in the making. Making hybrids out of heirlooms is just another way of manifesting the goodness of what was, what is, and what will be,” Wagner said from his farm in Washington state. His prefers the term “Hybrid by descent.”

The following gives some idea of the intense labor it took to create Green Zebra, his most popular tomato, and is reprinted here with permission from Wagner and Jeff McCormack of Saving Our Seeds, where the description first appeared.

Pedigree of Green Zebra

“‘Green Zebra’ has 4 heirloom-type tomatoes in the pedigree. The first breeding line was between ‘Evergreen’ and a crack-resistance red. The hybrid was red to start with but an improved green evolved by the F-5 filial generation. The other parent was a cross of a green-striped red tomato that was a mutant out of an old market tomato of the 1940s and another heirloom that Gleeker’s seed company had in an old catalogue of the 1950s. I had to reselect for the green stripe until I had a better crack resistance and flavor by the F-6 selection. The hybrid of these lines created a hybrid F-1 that was red with little or no stripes. Several generations of bulk harvesting of sister clones were evaluated repeatedly in the field followed by a generation in the greenhouses to get the tangiest green flesh with various levels of striping. I released the first seed in 1983.” Wagner adds: “To those who say there is nothing new under the sun, give me a minute.”

LeBlanc on Heirloom Tomatoes

Heirloom tomatoes have been in the news for years and with good reason. But after all the conversations about genetic diversity, the history and the stories, it all boils down to one word: flavor.

Sometimes the subject of heirlooms and poor disease resistance comes up. I have to say in my experience most heirlooms can be grown well and will be disease free if good conditions are provided. Ample spacing to provide plenty of air drainage, mulch to prevent splash from the soil, steady moisture.

Other folks maintain that heirlooms may bear fewer fruit than hybrids. In some cases this is true, but in my experience, well grown plants will bear well as a general rule.

And it IS true that some heirloom tomatoes will crack on the shoulder. One of the things that make heirlooms so appreciated is the tenderness of the skins. And it is that tenderness that makes many heirlooms vulnerable to cracking.

The “secret” is to provide even moisture: pick almost ripe fruits before a heavy rain.

Editor’s Note: This story first appeared in the Daily Bulldog print issue earlier this year. For a recent update on the story, go to: http://www.nj.com/news/index.ssf/2008/07/in_what_otherwise_has_been.html 

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