Tomatoes have a special place in my heart. I’m not a huge fan of the actual fruit anymore (the reason why is coming up), but I love all things derived from tomatoes – sauces, salsas, ketchup. And I love to grow the plant. I think I love them because one of my most cherished childhood memories is about garden fresh tomatoes. My grandfather, or Papa, had a pretty amazing green thumb; his garden remains legendary in my mind.
When I was little, it was a big deal to spend the night at my town Grandparents. Grandma and Papa spoiled us with Mickey Mouse shaped pancakes in the morning and cable (we didn’t get more than four channels until I was in high school, country livin!). After dinner, it was a big deal for Papa and me to head out to his garden to water, harvest his vegetables and pick tomato worms.
As little five-year old me was searching for those awful tomato worms, I remember telling Papa that I didn’t like tomatoes because “they were gross”. At some point during my little life I must have eaten off-season, store tomatoes and decided all tomatoes were like that. Papa gently picked some ripe cherry tomatoes off his vines and told me to eat one. Surprisingly, I did. And it was glorious. I remember shoving those little jewels in my mouth as fast as I could, being totally surprised at the sweet, warm burst in my mouth, it was like candy. I did that until I threw up. What can I say; I’ve never been good with moderation.
Every time I see a tomato plant, I remember my Papa and his warm cherry tomatoes. It’s a very happy memory. I think that memory is why my favorite part of my Monsanto tour was learning about tomatoes.
My field trip to Monsanto left me overwhelmed, I think I caught a really bad case of agnerditis while I was there. Monsanto was fascinating, it was like taking a plant science, a sociology, and a economics class all in one day. I loved it! Unfortunately, I have a mild case of writer’s block when it comes to writing about our day there, I learned so much! However, I am fighting it! Because I think it is important to talk about GMO’s, technology and Monsanto with an open mind.
Doug the Tomato Dude was our tour guide for the tomato portion of our tour. He was passionate about his tomatoes! By the time he left us, I wanted to start researching tomatoes too. He made it sound so interesting, and it is! He told us his passion for growing things came early (something I totally identify with), he grew garden peas as a kid. His fresh garden peas tasted nothing like canned peas – and there you go – inspiration comes from the simplest things!
Doug is working on a breeding project where he is using various naturally-occurring genes to improve heirloom tomatoes! He explained that there are three natural color mutations in the heirloom realm, tiger stripe, purple and a bi-color (like Rainbow). Working with these three mutations he can breed tomatoes with different levels of acidity, sugars, and volatiles (what you smell) . Something for everyone!
Doug’s goal is to make tomatoes that taste as good or better than existing heirlooms while having the level of fruit setting and disease resistance of modern tomatoes. And he wants to find ways so we can have heirloom quality taste much longer than the current seasonal window. In addition to making tomatoes taste better for us consumers he is also using tools from his genetic toolbox to help the farmer by eliminating cracking in the fruit (less waste!) and increased setting of the fruit (more product with less resources!). Doug is using genetic material that is over 60 years old along with some of the new great things he’s found! I think it is amazing that Doug and Monsanto are keeping these old genes alive and in production. Notice that is something you never hear about from the media. This germplasm dates back many decades and is responsible for long-time home garden favorites such as Better Boy, Big Boy, and Early Girl. By combining the past and the present some great things can happen that both preserve flavor for the consumer and add value to the grower.
Doug’s tomatoes are fresh market tomatoes, you know, the tomatoes you buy at the store. As I mentioned above, I think many of us are scarred from the tasteless, pretty tomatoes that dominated the store shelves for years. But Doug is changing that! Doug wants to see more heirlooms on the shelves; he wants more variety, more diversity so consumers can have a choice. (Isn’t that just music to your foodie ears? It was to mine!)
Doug mentioned that he loves to eat his own tomatoes, and his family does too. In fact he said he was making his family BLT’s with seedless tomatoes that very night for dinner doesn’t that sound fabulous?
The most exciting thing I learned during this portion of my tour was about the seedless tomatoes that have been developed, the Sweet Seedless. My Grandma has diverticulitis, so foods with little seeds, (like tomatoes), hurt her, she actually cannot eat them. This is unfortunate for people like my Grandma, because it can affect her nutrition. I plan on going to over to my Grandma’s house next spring and planting some Sweet Seedless in Papa’s old garden plot, so my Grandma can eat something she loves again. I think my Papa would be super proud of me.
Meeting Doug the Tomato Dude and learning about his work in tomatoes was marvelous. Being an animal science person, it is wonderful for me to learn more about plant science. I was able to make the connection in my head that like cattle, plants often benefit from different breeding techniques. These techniques and technologies are changing agriculture for us farmers and ranchers in the best possible way – we can produce more with less, we can increase the nutritional content of some foods, we can increase diversity, and we can give our consumers more choice! What an amazing time to be involved in agriculture!
If you want to learn more about this I highly recommend checking this blog out http://www.blogger.com/comment.g?blogID=7076455123022001652&postID=5115683617599271132. Dr. Folta is one of my favorite experts.
*Also thank you to Janice Person for a couple of the photos in this post!