Winding through long rows of tomato plants, Tyler Davis let his taste buds lead the way. Nursery merchant for Orchard Supply Hardware, Davis was in search of the next tomato sensation, something that would make customers say “Wow!”
“Most of all, people want something that tastes good,” said Davis, before popping another cherry tomato into his mouth.
Off a country road on a Woodland farm, Davis surveyed a wide variety of tomato shapes and sizes, colors and flavors. Well-known hybrids and famous heirlooms mixed with new varieties that promised improvements such as disease resistance and – most of all – good flavor. Could he find a better Better Boy?
Davis was among several nursery buyers who tried new vs. old varieties at the PanAmerican Seed tomato trials, held in August. Buyers from throughout the nation had come to the Sacramento area for the Summer Vegetable Trials, organized by the National Garden Bureau, and attended private “in field” tastings at farms scattered from Willows to Davis.
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Best known as a flower breeder, PanAm got into vegetables about 10 years ago, explained Josh Kirschenbaum, who hosted the company’s trials. For its tasting, this 10-acre Woodland farm grew 170 tomato varieties plus dozens of peppers, squash, cucumbers and eggplant.
“This is a living catalog,” said Dave Fox, sales manager at Kawahara Nurseries, who toured the fields with Davis. “You can make comparisons right on the vine.”
Each new release grew alongside familiar varieties for bite-for-bite comparisons. Buyers also could see how the plants grow, observe heat and disease resistance and other factors that play into potential success.
“It takes five or six years for a tomato variety to get commercialized,” Kirschenbaum said. “We grow for the home gardener or fresh market farmer. We’re not necessarily breeding a variety of tomato to be shipped around the world. We’re looking for highly productive, disease resistant tomatoes with good flavor.”
Plus something more – an “it” factor.
“Older gardeners want the old standards,” Kirschenbaum observed. “First-time gardeners want something new and cool.”
Such as Midnight Snack, PanAm’s 2017 All-America Selection winner. This indigo cherry tomato ripens to red with a glossy purple-black blush, but better flavor than other recent purple tomato introductions. Or Sugar Rush, an elongated oversized cherry tomato rated among the sweetest varieties ever grown.
Davis usually picks out 50 tomato varieties and 35 different peppers that will be grown for OSH’s nurseries in 2018.
“It changes every year,” he said of his selections. “Customers look for their favorites; that’s why we carry Celebrity and Better Boy. But they also want something new and different. So, that’s what we’re looking for here.”
His pick of the patch this time? “I love Chocolate Sprinkles,” Davis said, admiring a brown-striped cherry tomato. “It looks great, it tastes great. It has that pop of flavor. That’s my favorite of the new tomato introductions.”