Field trials help identify ‘top tomatoes’ for Texas producers, gardeners

Writer: Paul Schattenberg, 210-859-5752, paschattenberg@ag.tamu.edu

Contacts: Dr. Larry Stein, 830-278-9151, larry.stein@ag.tamu.edu

David Rodriguez, 210-631-0400, dhrodriguez@ag.tamu.edu

SAN ANTONIO – For more than a half century, the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service, in collaboration with a Bexar County agricultural producer and others, has been involved in field trials to determine the best tomato varieties for Texas.

These trials provide AgriLife Extension horticulturists with valuable data they can share with commercial producers, the green industry and individuals trying to decide what tomatoes to grow or sell.

“These trials began about 50 years ago with Verstuyft Farms in Von Ormy,” said Dr. Larry Stein, AgriLife Extension horticulturist, Uvalde. “These are the oldest and largest of our tomato trials throughout the state. We started there because they grew a lot of commercial tomatoes, so it was mutually beneficial for them to help with our trials.”

Stein said the farm typically provides from 1-3 acres for the trials and participates in the testing of 20-30 varieties each year.

“We planted 40 tomato varieties this year, including some of the well-known standard varieties like Celebrity, which we use as a baseline for comparison,” Stein said. “If the new varieties do not perform as well or better than the popular standard varieties, they’re obviously not going to make the cut.”

Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service horticulturist David Rodriguez gets tomato varieties ready to plant for this year’s tomato trial at the San Antonio Food Bank garden. (Photo courtesy of Andrew Waring)

There are both spring and fall tomato trials at the sites. Some of the performance factors used to determine which varieties are the best include fruit quality, yield and aesthetics, as well as plant health, including disease resistance. Some of the varieties that have performed well in past tests include Red Deuce, Tycoon, Solar Fire, Bobcat, Heat Wave and Surefire.

One of the other outcomes of these trials is the selection of the “rodeo tomato” which is  introduced each year at the San Antonio Livestock Show and Rodeo, usually held in February.  Through field testing, a tomato is chosen among new and existing tomato varieties, based on performance and sensory characteristics.

“Show attendees are given the opportunity to be the first to purchase the tomato at the Little Buckaroo Farm tent on the show grounds,” Rodriguez said. “The money we get from the sale of this tomato and other plants during this 18-day event goes toward horticulture scholarships.”

The 2017 rodeo tomato was the Harris Moran 1823, a medium-sized tomato with good yield and fruit quality.

“We need data from two to three years of trials before we select one as a rodeo tomato,” Rodriguez said.

Stein said one of the primary factors for selecting tomato plants that will grow well in Texas is that the plant has a substantial enough canopy to shield the fruit from the harsh sun in many parts of the state.

“We test determinate plants that grow to at least 2-3 feet in height and have adequate foliage to protect the fruit from sunburn,” he said.

Stein said some of the aesthetic and physiological aspects they look for in selecting the top tomatoes from these trials include fruit firmness and color, consistency and absence of “radial cracks” where fruit meets the stem end of the plant.

“We’re more focused on the performance factors and aesthetics than taste in our trials,” Stein said. “We do sometimes have taste panels, but we leave it up to those interested in a particular tomato to determine if it tastes as good as or better than a standard tomato. Taste is too subjective for us to assess through any definitive scientific means.”

Stein said the San Antonio Food Bank and Children’s Vegetable Garden at the San Antonio Botanical Garden are also participating in the tomato trials.

Dr. Larry Stein plants tomato varieties as part of this year’s spring tomato trials. (Photo courtesy of Andrew Waring)

“The folks at the Urban Garden at the San Antonio Food Bank have been collaborating with us on these trials for about the past five years,” Stein said. “This year they are providing us about a half-acre in the garden where we’re testing the same 40 varieties as at Verstuyft Farms. And this is the first year we are having tomato trials at the Children’s Vegetable Garden.”

Andrea Majemy, a nutrition assistant at the San Antonio Food Bank, participated in this year’s tomato trials.

“(AgriLife Extension) collects the data from these trials and when the tomatoes are harvested, we share them with our food bank clients,” Najemy said. “It’s a win-win.”  

David Rodriguez, AgriLife Extension agent for horticulture, Bexar County, who has led Children’s Vegetable Garden programs for several years, said he and program participants are conducting a small-scale tomato trial at the garden.

“The Children’s Vegetable Garden is a collaboration between AgriLife Extension and the San Antonio Botanical Garden,” Rodriguez said. “We have spring and fall programs for youth interested in gardening and horticulture. They are provided their own plot and learn how to plant, tend and harvest their own fruits and vegetables. Working in the garden gives young people a chance to grow their own food, better understand where their food comes from and learn the importance of agriculture and preserving the natural environment.”

He said youth participating in the mini-trial at the Children’s Vegetable Garden are getting an opportunity to learn about some of the scientific aspects of agriculture, including how performance data are used by agricultural producers, commercial nurseries and individual gardeners to determine what to plant or sell.

To find out how tomatoes perform in other parts of the state, Stein and Rodriguez provide 6-week-old plants of the same varieties planted at the Bexar County area sites to different parts of the state.

“Our county agents in those areas collaborate with producers or other contacts to perform their own trials and keep track of the results,” Stein said. “This year we sent plants to Fort Stockton, Tyler and Bellville so our agents could coordinate trials in those locations.”

Stein and Rodriguez both said these trials are not only important in helping commercial producers determine what tomatoes to plant, but also which varieties home gardeners may want to plant in their home vegetable garden.

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