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The next best thing: Does Jay Scott hold the future of decent store-bought tomatoes in his hands?

By Barry Estabrook
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, May 5, 2010; E01

In supermarket tomatodom, this is the Holy Grail: a fruit thick-skinned enough to shrug off the insults of modern agribusiness, but still tender at heart and tasting like, well, a tomato. And John "Jay" Scott might have discovered it.

Scott is a horticulture professor and tomato breeder at the University of Florida's Gulf Coast Research and Education Center outside Tampa. For more than a decade, he has worked to perfect a tomato variety called Tasti-Lee. This spring, Tasti-Lee left the rarefied confines of academic test plots and rigorously monitored consumer-tasting panels to make its way in the competitive hurly-burly of Florida's $619 million tomato industry. The state produces about half of the fresh tomatoes grown in the United States; between October and June, virtually all fresh, field-grown tomatoes come from Florida. The high-stakes business is littered with once-promising but now-forgotten tomato varieties.

If Tasti-Lee lives up to its early promise, Scott, who has bred between 30 and 40 new tomato varieties ("I haven't gone back and counted in a while") over nearly four decades, will achieve a plant breeder's version of immortality. And the rest of us finally will be able to head to the local supermarket any day of the year and bring home a nutritious, decent-tasting tomato.

Scott, 61, is aware that mere mention of winter tomatoes being trucked north from Florida is anathema to locavores, but he's also a realist. "Consumers tend to be spoiled," he said. "They go into the grocery store and they expect to see fresh tomatoes any time of year, even if they grumble about the quality. I want people to buy Tasti-Lees because they like them, not just because they are the only tomatoes there."

During the warmer months, large-scale fresh, field-grown tomato production migrates north from southern Florida to the state's panhandle, through the Carolinas and as far as New Jersey. In the depths of winter, Mexico supplies fresh tomatoes to the United States.

These commodity fruits are the workhorses of the tomato trade, always in the local supermarket and a mainstay of chain restaurants, where they are chopped into salsa, tossed into prepared salads and slipped between hamburger buns. Increasingly, they find themselves sharing produce-counter space with branded, on-vine fruits grown in greenhouses in all parts of the country as well as new hybrids such as the trademarked UglyRipe, which looks (and, producers claim, tastes) like beloved heirloom varieties. These newcomers cost four times as much as commodity tomatoes. Tasti-Lee is designed to give commodity farmers a tomato that can compete in this premium market.

Like many plant varieties, Tasti-Lee owes its existence to a combination of serendipity and the keen eye of an experienced plant breeder. In Florida, the summer of 1998 was a terrible season for anyone trying to grow a tasty tomato, Scott said. For some unknown reason -- too wet, too cloudy, too hot? -- Scott's tomato field tests, which included hundreds of genetic lines, failed to produce fruits with any sweetness. Even varieties that had been sweet in previous years tasted bland. But one morning while out in the field, Scott spotted a nice-looking tomato called Fla. 7907. He picked a fruit, took out his pocket knife, cut off a wedge and popped it into his mouth. "Aha!" he said.

It was sweet, but Fla. 7907 had one big flaw that made it a non-starter for commercial production: It was almost perfectly spherical. The industry demands tomatoes with flattened tops and bottoms that can be picked green, sorted on a conveyor belt, gassed with ethylene until they acquire the desired red-orange hue, and trucked for hundreds of miles, the path a typical fresh Florida tomato takes to market.

Not only do commercial tomatoes have to be the right shape, but they also have to be hard, and 7907 was softer than most agribusiness tomatoes. To be successful, such varieties also must produce high yields of large, uniform fruit. They have to be able to resist diseases and tolerate extremes of heat and cold. And they need to have a long shelf life, according to Scott.

"Sometimes I wonder why we even bother with flavor," Scott said in an interview last month in his office, a cramped space filled with all manner of tomato-related kitsch: tomato-shaped coffee mugs, framed antique tomato-crate labels, a vintage advertisement for Campbell's tomato soup, a dog-eared stack of Tomato Magazines. "There is no easy way to breed for taste. It's not like there's one genetic marker that tomatoes must have to taste good," he said.

Tomato flavor, Scott explained, is the result of the interplay of acids (primarily citric and malic), sugars and the ephemeral scents of 15 to 20 volatiles, the term for chemicals that can be smelled.

The structure of a tomato makes breeding for both taste and toughness a difficult balancing act. The gooey part of a tomato, called locular jelly, contains most of the all-important acidity, Scott said. The pericarp tissue, the walls of a tomato, give it strength and sweetness, but no acidity. The harder a tomato is, the blander it is likely to taste.

Fortunately, Scott was also developing a line of what he calls "ultra-firm" tomatoes. Among those was one called Fla. 8059. It was hard, with the right shape and a perfectly acceptable flavor. Sensing a match made in heaven, Scott crossbred the sweet but soft and spherical 7907 with the harder 8059, and in the fall of 2002, the first of what was then referred to as Fla. 8153 ripened.

Scott thought the new hybrid carried the best traits of both parents. At trials conducted by the university, consumers on test panels agreed. Time after time, 8153 beat other tomatoes. Subsequent chemical analyses showed that the fruit had a desirable balance of sugars, acids and volatiles. It also had an unplanned-for bonus: Both of its parents possessed what Scott calls the crimson gene, giving 8153 a striking fire-engine-red color and an extraordinarily high level of lycopene, an important antioxidant. "It sounds like magic, doesn't it?" said Scott. "It really is, in a way."

Good-looking, good-tasting and good for you, Fla. 8153 had everything going for it except for a catchy, appetizing name. Scott christened and trademarked his new baby Tasti-Lee, Lee being the first name of his mother-in-law, a tomato lover who had encouraged and supported his research. After four seasons of field trials and consumer tests confirmed that Tasti-Lee wasn't just a one-season wonder, the variety was ready for its commercial debut.

Four seed companies bid to buy the rights to produce and distribute Tasti-Lee seeds. The university chose Bejo Seeds. A large, family-owned Dutch firm with offices around the world, Bejo specializes in cabbage, carrots and other cool-weather crops. "We felt that marketing would be a key to Tasti-Lee's success," said Scott. "It seemed like Bejo would be hungry to get into the tomato market and that they would push Tasti-Lee pretty hard."

The job of giving Tasti-Lee that push fell to Greg Styers, Bejo's sales and product development manager for the southeastern United States. "We had a vision to start with a grass-roots movement," Styers said.

He approached Whitworth Farms, which grows vegetables on 700 acres near Boca Raton; it's a small player in the Florida tomato business, which is dominated by a few huge companies. "Whitworth was big enough to deal with some large retailers but small enough that they were willing to take a chance on Tasti-Lee," Styers said.

One of Whitworth's customers was Whole Foods Market. Glen Whitworth, who owns the farm along with his sister and two brothers, approached one of the company's produce buyers, who agreed to test-market Tasti-Lee. In February it began appearing in 16 Whole Foods stores in Florida. "With Tasti-Lee, we are trying to compete with hothouse tomatoes," Whitworth said.

"Tasti-Lees are born to be sold as a premium tomato," said Styers. Instead of being picked "mature green" and gassed with ethylene, Tasti-Lees are picked when they are first blushing pink and allowed to ripen naturally. In the produce section, they have their own PLU code and bear stickers identifying them by name. They were selling for $3.99 a pound at the Florida Whole Foods stores in March. At a competing supermarket, commodity tomatoes cost only 99 cents a pound.

Like all retail chains, Whole Foods plays its cards close to its chest. Reached by telephone and then e-mail, the company declined to comment on how Tasti-Lee was doing. But by late March, reorders were coming in faster than Whitworth could grow Tasti-Lees, according to Styers. "I think the stars really lined up for Jay when he developed this variety. It truly is remarkable."

Scott, who drawls his carefully chosen words with little inflection and almost no emotion, didn't go that far. "I stand behind it," he said. "For a full-size tomato, it's better in my opinion than what's out there. Hopefully, it goes."

If it doesn't, Scott has plenty to keep him busy. He's now developing heat-tolerant tomatoes, tomatoes with resistance to a virulent leaf-curl virus, and tomatoes that can be grown on the ground and, theoretically, harvested by machine.

And he hasn't given up on flavor. "In some work we've done, there is this fruity-floral note that adds pique to the sweetness," he said. "We've crossed a big, crimson tomato with that trait into one of Tasti-Lee's parents. The result is even better-tasting. The trick now is to improve size, firmness and yields with further crossing."

Estabrook, former contributing editor at Gourmet magazine, lives in Vermont. He can be reached through his Web site, http://www.politicsoftheplate.com.

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