Colorful tomatoes will hit local markets this summer

Heirloom vegetable varieties may offer a profitable alternative for farmers, home gardeners and consumers

Heirloom vegetables are vintage varieties that have been preserved by passing seed down from generation to generation. These varieties are generally 50 to 100 years old, although many are much older and some are still undiscovered. They come in a range of colors, shapes and textures, which some shoppers don’t prefer, while others perceive them to be superior in flavor, eating quality and interest. Cooks are creating colorful dishes for their families and chefs are paying a premium for heirlooms.

Heirloom tomatoes, in particular, are being grown for specialty markets such as farmers markets and local restaurants. In 2009 a research project was conducted by university faculty and staff in ten Great Lakes states and Ontario that included Miller’s Big Red Orchard and Greenhouses in Romeo, Michigan (Macomb County). The goal of the project was to test the adaptability of 10 promising heirlooms from Southern Illinois north to Minnesota and as far east as Long Island. Varieties ranged from the nearly one pound pink variety Brandywine and the lavender Cherokee Purple to the beautiful orange golf-ball sized Juane Flamme and high yielding grape size variety Tainan. In 2010, the varieties White Queen, Prudens Purple, Ludmillas Red Plum and Orange Strawberry were added to the Macomb County trials.

Results indicated that these heirlooms may not be high yielders compared to more conventional varieties and generally do not ship well at their peak color and flavor. They are not rated as superior in eating quality by everyone. In fact, taste-testing indicated that some were put-off by purple, pink or yellow colors and odd shapes and preferred the round red market varieties. However, some consumers, restaurants and retailers are placing a high value on these old varieties and value the differences. As markets for heirlooms grow, so will the benefits for farmers, home gardeners and consumers.

View 2009 yield results.

Grower Ray Miller displays heirloom tomatoes by variety.
Photo 1. Grower Ray Miller displays
heirloom tomatoes by variety.

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