Letter from Langdon: The Perfect Tomato

[imgbelt img=tomato_packets-288.jpg]Richard Oswald polls the experts and slices into controversy: Which tomato is the best? And how can you best grow it?


Amishland Heirloom Seeds

Large Mennonite Pink, a beefsteak tomato

The other day my son Brandon called, looking for tomato plants. “Do you have any Beefsteak?’ he asked. “Those are the best.”

That’s one opinion.

Here on the farm outside of Langdon, Missouri, we started a few plants in a little hothouse — about six different tomato varieties. We have white ones, cherry ones, strawberry ones, Striped Tigerellas and Striped Romans. We even have Plum Lemons, but no Beefsteaks. So Brandon started me thinking about which tomato really is best.

I made some calls, and it seems that each tomato grower I spoke to has a different favorite. Rusty Lee of Lee Farms in Truxton gave me the blueprint for the perfect tomato, but maybe not the tomato itself.

“The perfect tomato,” Rusty said, “is a perennial that’s not too firm and not too soft, not to acid and not too sweet.”

Case closed… except that here in the temperate zones where subfreezing temperatures put a regular end to our growing season, the perennial tomato is strictly annual.

Cherokee Purple

Cherokee Purples, Nancy Smith’s favorite table ‘mater

Over in Doniphan, Nancy Smith, a director of Missouri Farmers Union and marketing director for Sappington Market in St. Louis, says she does have a favorite called the Cherokee Purple. She wouldn’t go so far as to say it was the best. “The perfect tomato would be perfect both for slicing and canning,” she said. While she likes the Cherokee Purple for the table, Nancy prefers to put up Rutgers or Marglobe because of their flavor and tendency to ripen uniformly.

Ken Scott, another MFU director, from Poplar Bluff, grows tomatoes that he sells in local farmers markets and to food retailers near his farm. Ken likes Mountain Fresh because his customers appreciate a longer shelf life that holds well on the vine. “My Mountain Fresh plants get about four feet tall but aren’t too bushy,” he says. Besides tomatoes, Ken grows okra, lots of it. Last year he sold over 7000 pounds.  “Tomatoes and okra definitely go together in the garden and on the plate,” Ken adds.

Rusty Lee likes the Jet Star. It’s not a new variety, but not old enough to be considered an heirloom. “Jet Star is not too sweet and not too acid. It’s firm,” Rusty said, “but not too firm. It makes the perfect eight ounce fruit that, when sliced, is just the right size to cover a hamburger patty. What more could you want? It’s a good middle of the road tomato–the only tomato my wife and mother-in-law will can.”

Where wife and mother-in-law agree, Rusty is wise to go along.

Rusty grows vegetables on about 20 acres. He sells wholesale and retail in the St. Louis area, including direct marketing to about 200 customers through Consumer Supported Agriculture (CSA).

As you could guess, there are also different opinions on how to grow the perfect tomato. Ken Scott doesn’t try to follow organic practices but he does like to keep his growing methods natural. Ken buys his plant food from Zone Products in Dexter, MO. Zone offers a variety of nutrient sources like fish emulsion, kelp, liquid calcium, natural foliar sprays of nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium. This spring Ken is erecting a 70 foot hoop house where he can grow his tomatoes inside, on the ground.