The Jersey Tomato

Washington County Enterprise-Leader - - OPINION - Jim Hightower

Food cor­po­ra­tions and their aca­demic co­horts keep try­ing to “make” an in­dus­trial tomato to ri­val Mother Na­ture’s prod­uct. And they keep fail­ing.

They might con­sider this in­stead: the Rut­gers 250. It’s a re­vived ver­sion of the clas­sic hy­brid tomato bred in 1934 by Rut­gers Univer­sity and Camp­bell Soup. The Rut­gers tomato’s ex­cel­lent fla­vor and tex­ture made it the va­ri­ety choice for years, even­tu­ally ac­count­ing for 60 per­cent of all toma­toes grown com­mer­cially in the United States.

But it fell out of fa­vor in the ’60s, when in­dus­trial grow­ers in Cal­i­for­nia and Florida switched to hard — and taste­less — toma­toes bred to with­stand har­vest­ing ma­chines.

The Rut­gers va­ri­ety soon dis­ap­peared from gro­cery bins and was for­got­ten un­til 2009.

That year — with the Good Food move­ment mush­room­ing and with con­sumers de­mand­ing that su­per­mar­kets sell fla­vor­ful toma­toes — plant breed­ers dis­cov­ered that Camp­bell still had ge­netic ma­te­rial from the par­ent plants.

Since then, they’ve been work­ing with it again, us­ing cross-breed­ing tech­niques that go back to Latin Amer­ica’s pre-Columbian na­tives. Slowly but surely, they brought back the Rut­gers and its nat­u­ral fla­vor, glow­ingly de­scribed as “the very taste of sum­mer.”

The res­ur­rected Rut­gers tomato isn’t hard enough to be ma­chine-har­vested and shipped across coun­try — which is one its ma­jor virtues. The fact that this tomato must be grown and mar­keted re­gion­ally is one step to­wards a de­cen­tral­ized, dein­dus­tri­al­ized, and bet­ter food econ­omy.

In­stead of try­ing to squeeze na­ture into a high­tech, cor­po­rate model, this tomato rep­re­sents an un­der­stand­ing that our food sys­tem can — and should — co­op­er­ate with na­ture and foster the growth of re­gional economies.

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