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'Ramapo' tomatoes back by popular demand

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Wednesday, January 30, 2008
Q. I've read that 'Ramapo' tomatoes are now available at Rutgers. This was a tomato that I grew in my garden years ago. It had that great "Jersey tomato" flavor. Why did 'Ramapo' disappear for so long? How can I get some seed for this year? Do you recommend any other tomato varieties? -- Daniel S., North Plainfield

A. 'Ramapo' is still one of my favorite varieties, and I'm not alone. Many people from across the state and region have requested 'Ramapo' seeds over the years, but were unable to find the original variety. The original F1 'Ramapo' hybrid has not been available for more than 20 years.

This classic tomato was developed by Dr. Bernard Pollack at Rutgers University in 1968. Pollack and my colleagues at the Rutgers New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station have maintained the parent varieties and produced small quantities of parent and hybrid seeds for testing and preservation purposes.

Back in 1999, Peter Nitzsche, professor and agricultural agent with the NJAES-Cooperative Extension of Morris County, contacted Pollack, the tomato's developer. He requested the seeds of the parent varieties that would be needed to produce genuine 'Ramapo' plants.

"I gave the seed to Dr. Steve Garrison, who made the cross, and in 2001, I was able to taste 'Ramapo' and see what gardeners had been talking about," Nitzsche says.

A team that included Nitzsche, Wes Kline, Michelle Infante-Casella and myself began testing 'Ramapo' against many traditional and heirloom varieties for flavor and other attributes. "Ramapo's flavor can only be described as good old-fashioned New Jersey tomato," says Nitzsche.

"'Ramapo' is not the end-all and be-all of our work," says Jack Rabin, associate director of the Farm Programs at NJAES. "It is a tomato that has excellent taste, equal to many of the best heirloom varieties, while having plant vigor, and superior fruit quality. In other words, it has performance that real farmers need and gardeners appreciate."

As breeders began to concentrate on the shipping and storage aspects of tomato development over the past 20 years, flavor often took a back seat. The team at NJAES focused their research on flavor, but also identified the varieties that would perform best in New Jersey.

The classic "Jersey tomato" flavor is not attributed to any one variety, but results from a combination of factors, including genetics, soil types, climate and growing and harvesting techniques. NJAES research over the past five years has revealed many excellent tomato varieties for New Jersey. 'Ramapo' will provide a classic flavor for niche farmers and home gardeners.

Testing for tomatoes with great taste for commercial growers identified several key varieties with great hybrid vigor. According to Peter Nitzsche, "Two examples from this year's trial are 'BHN 589' and 'Scarlet Red.' Both have excellent yield and fruit quality but also performed well in our taste tests." Many of these top varieties are already being grown by farmers across the state.

My favorites
Some of my favorite tomatoes from our research trials and taste tests include the hybrids 'Ramapo,''Celebrity' and 'Jet Star' and the heirlooms 'Mortgage Lifter,' 'Aunt Ruby's German Green' and 'Brandywine' (Sudduth strain). Several outstanding cherry tomatoes for home gardens include 'Sungold' and 'Isis Candy.' 'Sungold' has been a very productive large cherry tomato in my garden and one of my favorites for salads. 'Isis Candy' is as sweet as candy with excellent tomato flavor.

Nothing beats a vine-ripened 'Ramapo' or 'Celebrity' tomato for a classic tomato sandwich. I could live on tomato sandwiches and good old Jersey sweet corn in the summer.

Secrets for outstanding tomato flavor
One of the secrets for great tomato flavor is purchase or pick fresh vine-ripened tomatoes. Many tomatoes are shipped long distances and taste no better than the boxes they were shipped in. The unique balance of sugars and acids in vine-ripened fruit provide the Jersey tomato flavor that we all love. Tomatoes lose their flavor rapidly under cold storage or refrigerator temperatures. Whole tomatoes should be stored at room temperature and only refrigerated after they are sliced.

Grow your own 'Ramapo' tomatoes
In late 2007, NJAES produced a batch of organic F1 Hybrid 'Ramapo' seed that is now available to gardeners on a first-come, first-serve basis. To find out more about the availability of 'Ramapo' seed, visit njfarmfresh.rutgers.edu/JerseyTomato.html or contact your local county cooperative extension master gardener helpline. County cooperative extension helpline numbers can be found at njaes.rutgers.edu/county.

If you don't grow your own transplants, visit njfarmfresh.rutgers.edu/JerseyTomato.html or ifplantscouldtalk.rutgers.edu over the next several months to find out where to buy 'Ramapo' transplants.